Historic Der Freischutz on CD/DVD

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz on CD and DVD

Bard College’s 2014 SummerScape offering of Weber’s Euryanthe realized on stage what most of us knew only by sound from recordings, even if that. Thinking this experience might spark an exploration of the operas of Carl Maria von Weber, I thought I’d revisit the ones I know. Der Freischütz ranks highly among my top 200 operas; alas Weber’s Euryanthe and Oberon and the lesser ones, such as Die drei Pintos and Abu Hassan, do not. I like them, and I confess I’m liking them more and more as I write this…but one has to draw the line somewhere.

This review of releases of Der Freischütz is certainly not meant to be all-inclusive: the recordings listed below are only the ones on my shelf, by far not all the ones available. I cite the labels of these; some of them are first releases on CD, but others are re-issues. Should you seek one, search by the complete cast: labels and cover art change over time.

Furthermore, as I write, rumors abound saying recordings that are flat and spin face extinction in the very near future. Hopefully, though, the content of these and all other great legendary recordings will be preserved for future generations and easily available in whatever new media come our way. Stick with the cast.

Some praise Wilhelm Furtwängler’s performance of Freischütz as an important historical document. But though live from the stage of the famed Salzburg Festival in July of 1954, just a few months before the great maestro’s death, this recording in no way should be a first choice for newcomers to Freischütz.

True, Furtwängler brings out an occasional hidden profundity in the score, but some of his tempi are leaden, as if Anton Bruckner had re-written the dances and the duet for Ännchen and Agathe in the beginning of Act II. Other drawbacks include overall poor sound quality, some of the cast members, and just plain noise, both on stage and in the audience. The overture, for instance, begins quietly with woodwinds, strings, horns, and eruptions of assorted respiratory ailments.

Hans Hopf was my first Siegfried at the Met in 1963. Not what you’d call a lyric tenor, he, as Max, is at best serviceable: a beefy voice with good volume and a hefty ring. To his credit, he warms up and, necessary for a live performance, he can be heard over the orchestra. But I’m not a fan. Kurt Böhme’s Kaspar is wonderfully menacing, though he is captured to better advantage on the Jochum recording, as is Rita Streich’s Ännchen (see below). The great Elisabeth Grümmer shines as Agathe, but you’ll hear more poise, more nuances and more soul from her on the Keilberth studio recording. Otto Edelmann is the Hermit. My CDs for this performance are issued by the Gala label, but it’s probably available on other labels too.

As live performances of Der Freischütz go, Erich Kleiber’s 1955 radio broadcast performance, released by Koch, is the best I’ve heard. Same era, also many of the same principals, but here it is quite well recorded: Elisabeth Grümmer’s heavenly elegance shines through her every line and Rita Streich is far more perky than with Furtwängler. Hans Hopf is heard to better advantage, sweeter, richer, even at times subtle; Max Proebstl is a good Kaspar. Kurt Böhme is the Hermit in this one. Erich Kleiber’s approach to Freischütz is refined and reverential, chamber-like in some sections, an alternative certainly to Jochum or to Kleiber’s son Carlos (see below). The Kolner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester handle Weber’s score aptly; actors speak the dialogue; there are unobtrusive but at first surprising sound effects to enhance the Wolf Glen Scene and elsewhere. If you like ‘live,’ this is the one.

But musically and vocally the best Freischütz on my shelf on CD comes from the studio under the direction of Eugen Jochum and the Orchestra of the Bayerischen Rundfunks (DG 1960). This one really sizzles! The cast features Kurt Böhme’s matchless Kaspar, who verges on a true sinister mania.

The best recording of  Der Freischütz

The best recording of Der Freischütz

Max is pleasingly sung by Richard Holm, whose light tenor brings an easy sound of youth and innocence to the character. This fits: Max and Agathe, certainly Ännchen are, after all, young people, possibly even teenagers. Agathe is performed by a bright young Irmgard Seefried, who, like Gundula Janowitz in Carlos Kleiber’s Freischütz (see below) creates a certain degree of emotional distance vocally between her character and the listener. If you like a certain ‘chill’ to Agathe, then no problem. Both Seefried and Janowitz are heavenly, don’t get me wrong, but Grümmer on EMI, to my ears, has much more warmth to her expression.

Ännchen is charmingly sung by Rita Streich, always a favorite singer of mine. Jochum backs her spunk and fetching optimism all the way. Luxury casting includes baritone Eberhard Wächter as a youthful Ottokar and Paul Kuen as the bauer Kilian. A tad disappointing is Walter Kreppel as the Hermit: I want far more gravity in the voice to match the gravity of the moment.

Fans will note that these were the new and established German stars of that era: Kuen was a favorite Mime at Bayreuth; he, Wächter (as Donner), Kreppel and Kurt Böhme (as Fasolt and Fafner respectively) had all appeared only a few years earlier in Georg Solti’s groundbreaking Das Rheingold, the beginning of the legendary first studio Ring in stereo on Decca, produced by John Culshaw.

The dialogue is greatly trimmed, in my mind not a drawback for repeated listening. The music is the thing. No libretto is included in this 2 CD DG Opera House series release.

Another fine recording of  Der Freischütz  from Joseph Keilberth

Another fine recording of Der Freischütz from Joseph Keilberth

The Freischütz on EMI (1959) with Joseph Keilberth and the Berlin Philharmoniker was my very first, though it was the LP release on Seraphim, which omitted most of the dialogue save that of the Wolf Glen Scene and a line or two here or there. If Keilberth can’t whip up the visceral energy of Jochum’s or Kleiber’s conception, he is still competitive: this recording sports a first rate cast and most of the dialogue on the CD release. Elisabeth Grümmer is again a lovely, soulful Agathe, paired nicely with a sweet Lisa Otto as Ännchen. If Rudolf Schock, for me, never quite displayed the elegance of Nicolai Gedda in that swell of operetta recordings in the 50s and 60s, he makes for a very pleasing Max here (which, alas, is not the case for Mr. Gedda’s Max on a later EMI Freischütz with a miscast Birgit Nilsson as Agathe). Bass Karl Christian Kohn is a competitive Kaspar, but stick with Böhme if you must only have one. The great Gottlob Frick gives ample authority to the Hermit. There is the sound of redemption!

Oddly, though, the recorded sound levels change inexplicably in this release. Surely this aspect could have been adjusted in a digital remastering. There is a complete libretto with notes in English, but the libretto in my set was in German only.

Carlos Kleiber’s 1973 recording of Freischütz on DG in stereo runs a close second to the Jochum, certainly with Kleiber’s razor sharp conception, which, at some times, surprises one with eccentric tempi. But he leads a first rate orchestra, the famous Staatskapelle of Dresden. A real home game this one, in other words. The cast is uniformly solid, particularly Bernd Weikl as Ottokar, Siegfried Vogel as Kuno, Gundula Janowitz as Agathe, Edith Mathis as Ännchen, and Peter Schreier as Max. Schreier, like Holm, brings a lighter, more lyric voice to his role. Edith Mathis, like Streich, is firmly in the soubrette parts, if not quite as chipper; she is also Ännchen on the first of two Hamburg State Opera productions to be released on DVD (see below). Even these many years later I haven’t yet warmed up to Theo Adam’s Kaspar, neither in his voice nor in his conception of the role. Böhme and Karl Christian Kohn are far more expressive characters on CD.

The audio-theatrical aspects of the Solti/Culshaw Ring on Decca challenged recording engineers hereafter to conceive of the drama-on-record in a two dimensional sonic space. Happily, like most DG releases from the early 70s, Kleiber’s Freischütz is not over-the-top in this respect. Still, in creating depth some of the characters are recorded at a greater distance than they should be: the impact of the Hermit’s entrance at the end is muted by placing Franz Crass back from the microphones. The dialogue, also relatively complete, is spoken by actors who are relatively good matches for the singers.

My first Freischütz “on stage,” if that’s the right phrase here, was a screening of the Hamburg State Opera’s production, directed for TV in 1968 by Joachim Hess, eventually shown on screen at Lincoln Center in 1970. Rolf Liebermann, Artistic Director of the Hamburg State Opera at the time, oversaw this and the taping of several other operas in his company’s repertory, which, if you can get it, are still available as a boxed DVD set.

This classic performance of the Hamburg State Opera ’68 Freischütz, as well as the ensuing two cited below, is available on DVD on the ARTHAUS Musik label. It stars a familiar ensemble from that era, including Tom Krause as Ottokar, Ernst Kozub as Max, Arlene Saunders as Agathe, Edith Mathis as Ännchen, and Gottlob Frick as Kaspar. The Hermit is Hans Sotin. Leopold Ludwig conducts.

Taped in a relatively cramped studio, the scenic demands are only partially realized, particularly those of the Wolf Glen Scene. But Gottlob Frick, who recorded extensively in Europe yet appeared at the Met only a dozen times in the Ring of the 1961-1962 season, is worth the price of the disc just to see and hear his rendering of Kaspar. Arlene Saunders is quite lovely and Mathis is pert, as she would be soon after at the Met in a new production of Freischütz in the fall of 1971. All in all, the totality is most acceptable under the circumstances.

But the Hamburg State Opera’s video of Freischütz from 1999, directed for TV by Peter Konwitschny, under the musical direction of Ingo Metzmacher, is yet again another story. The elevator at the edge of the stage at the opera’s opening bodes ill, and, sure enough, this one delivers a heaping, steaming platter of Euro-Trash.

Samuel, the dark huntsman (a speaking role only), wanders in and out of the scenes. At one point the pervert flashes the girls, at another point he recites the text of the Hunter’s Chorus in front of the curtain as a sort of standup comedian. At the opera’s grand conclusion the characters exchange business cards. Give me a break! Unless there’s documented evidence that Weber and librettist Friedrich Kind even remotely thought of Der Freischütz as a joke it is a mistake to treat it as one.

However, musically, the Hamburg State Opera ‘99 is decently sung. As a ‘soundtrack only,’ the DVD might be worth the purchase. Agathe is Charlotte Margiono, certainly a respectable voice; Ännchen is a strong Sabine Ritterbusch, Kaspar is quite effectively characterized by Albert Dohmen, who today (2014) is a much sought-after Wotan on the world stage. Max is Jorma Silvasti, known at the Met for his performances in the Janáček repertory.

Happily, diametrically opposed to the above, we have Jens Neubert’s vision of this ghostly tale recently released on DVD, so titled The Hunter’s Bride.

Why? Because it (in German Die Jägersbraut) was one of the original working titles of Weber’s opera. Also because Der Freischütz doesn’t conveniently translate into English (it sort of means “the marksman (Der Schütz) whose bullets, through magic, freely (ergo Frei) hit their target without being aimed.” Interestingly, the origins of the hit-without-aim concept, albeit with an arrow, apparently go back to the very dark days (in 1484) of Sprenger and Krämer’s Malleus Malleficarum.

The Hunter's Bride,  Der Freischütz  on film.

The Hunter's Bride, Der Freischütz on film.

But more importantly it’s called The Hunter’s Bride because director Jens Neubert wishes to refocus the drama to what he feels was Weber’s original conception, wherein the central character is Agathe, not Max, and the time is Weber’s present, that of war torn Dresden of 1813, not back in time to the 1640s, the end of the Thirty Years War (which apparently was a dodge to avoid censorship). Napoleon and his shattered forces are in retreat through Saxony from their debacle in the Russian winter. Former alliances are crumbling.

For starters, the soundtrack for this film (the soloists and chorus and London Symphony Orchestra, led by Daniel Harding) is extremely fine. Harding has that firm grip on the score, echoing Jochum and Kleiber. The overture is played intact with images and events preceding the stage action, some done as a puppet show, but also we see the portrait falling and cracking Agathe on the forehead, the battles, the deaths and the misery, interspersed by cannon fire and gunshots, horses and cries. The film also clearly acknowledges differences in social strata: Max is a hunter and a marksman, but he is defeated in the shooting contest by a bauer, a peasant. Small wonder he feels jinxed and depressed.

The sopranos, new to me, are finely cast: Juliane Banse (Agathe) and Regula Mühlemann (Ännchen) are young, slender and most attractive to watch; they sing their parts with great aplomb. The two women take comfort in and clearly enjoy each other’s company. Agathe has her dreams and nightmares and Ännchen, always upbeat and supportive, has her fantasies of Mr. Right. I love Mühlemann. She is a winner in every way.

It may be difficult to grasp what the prim and gentle Agathe sees in a rough, sweaty Max here. Perhaps it’s the drift toward realism afforded by the medium of film that allows the display of some all-too-human qualities often overlooked in most opera productions. But Michael König as Max (and director Neubert) actually raise the stakes of the drama by making it fairly clear that the poor fellow is suffering from a real mental breakdown. Could be post-traumatic stress: he nearly escapes death in the battle during the overture.

Also it could be the dilemma he’s in: he’s off his game, and if he loses the shooting contest at sunrise, he loses Agathe’s hand in marriage. Michael Volle’s Kaspar is also a winning creation. Clearly (in the overture) he and Max have shouldered arms together through the bloodshed. But Kaspar is desperate: he needs Max’s soul (and maybe Agathe’s) to save his own.

In these days of CGI, where entire nations of orcs, hobbits, wizards, spirits, multi horned mastodons, ghosts, etc. can entrance the eye, I was a bit surprised that Neubert’s Wolf Glen Scene falls shy of Kind’s original (and graphic) stage directions. But the outdoor on-location scenery is atmospheric enough, with the bodies of dead soldiers strewn about. Most important, the music tells it all: the conjuring of the magic bullets is a major event of the opera, even here, even if some of the spirits on the periphery are not graphically apparent. I highly recommend Neubert’s Freischütz film, especially if you’re not, as some fans are, put off by opera-on-film.

The repertory of German opera in the first half of the 19th century is very rewarding for those who wish to take the plunge. One assumes that you know Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’sDie Zauberflöte, also maybe Die Entführung aus dem Serail. These at least have been performed at the Met in recent years, as have all of Wagner’s operas from Der fliegende Holländer onward. Since much of this repertory is not on DVD, you’ll have to be satisfied with audio.

That said, the next step from Der Freischütz is either more Weber (Euryanthe or Oberon) or to Lortzing (Der Wildschütz or Zar und Zimmermann), Nicolai (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor), Marschner (Hans Heiling), Schumann (Genoveva), Flotow (Martha) or Schubert (Alfonso und Estrella). Wagner’s big three Romantic operas are Der fliegende HolländerTannhäuser, and Lohengrin, but it’s impossible that you don’t already know these. Der Wildschütz and Zar und Zimmermann are personal favorites of mine.

More on these later. It's good to have this one back!  JRS