As regular readers all know, I spend any amount of my time taking trips down memory lane: now I’m going to pack you off on one instead, and refer you back to my review of Weber’s opera as performed at last year’s Proms. In it, having given an overview of the miserable provision of the greatest pre-Wagnerian German opera on London’s stages, I had this to say:

“Now, of course, after what feels like an eternity of waiting, two Der Freischützes – at least in concert – come along (almost) at once, evidently the operatic equivalent of London buses. Well, perhaps not quite. When Sir Colin Davis conducts the piece next April as part of the LSO’s 2011/12 season at the Barbican, it will be with a seriously heavyweight Wagnerian cast – including Christine Brewer and Simon O’Neill in the leads – and, as written, in German, with the original spoken dialogue (the latter I am assuming: if instead we get the services of some smart-arse narrator, in any language, I will personally commit murder).”

You know, I sometimes think I should set up shop as a sort of operatic Reader of the Runes – Mystic Meg Page, perhaps – for guess what? That’s right. We did indeed “get the services of some smart-arse narrator”. All the original score’s careful, and carefully paced, interleavings of song and dialogue were replaced by an omniscient storyteller. So, as I am in critical duty bound, murder will be duly committed, if only here in prose rather than in person. How anyone so obviously fond of and attuned to Weber’s idiom as Sir Colin Davis could sanction such a monstrosity, God alone knows. And having done so, could it have been executed any worse? I should add rapidly that I have no particular beef with Amanda Holden’s accurate summaries of the contents of the dialogue sequences in themselves – regrettable as they are – nor with Malcolm Sinclair’s personal manner of delivering them (though he thinks Kilian rhymes with Gillian), both many happy miles away from the kind of conspiratorially knowing, wink-nudge-leer drivel extruded by the likes of Jeremy Sams, for instance, more keen on sucking up to an audience and taking the piss out of the work concerned than conveying information. No, it’s simply a matter of the musico-dramatic damage, the loss of the minutely calculated differences and significances attaching to when people sing and when they speak and why, not to mention the intolerable visual nonsense of hearing a man, placed not with the soloists but behind the band, microphoned and therefore in a different acoustic from everybody else, actually impersonating the missing dialogue in extensive passages of “and then she said, and then he said, then she said” when the very characters to whom he is referring and paraphrasing ARE SITTING THERE, staring vacuously into space, evidently considered incapable of human speech or dramatic interaction with each other. It kills the opera stone dead from the word go as any kind of meaningfully enacted drama.

And let no-one try telling me that neither Brewer nor O’Neill haven’t got sufficiently fluent German to handle it: or that it would alienate a largely monoglot Anglophone audience. The two singers between them have sung, or are in the process of singing, the entire Wagnerian repertory between them: they’d better have good German is all I’d say. And as for the punters’ comprehension, that’s why God invented surtitles, in use here throughout, but only for the sung sequences. The reduction ad absurdam of this preposterous approach was, of course, what happened to (the entirely dialogue) Act Three Scene One: it vanished altogether, the jaunty Entr’acte suddenly dove-tailing into the opening of Scene Two, a musical non-sequitur if ever there was one. And though we were informed that the performance was being recorded (for LSO Live) – polite House Management-speak for “For God’s sake keep your mouths shut and don’t cough” – I don’t see how such a compromised and partial account of the “opera” (as opposed to the “score”) could have any commercial validity or appeal in a marketplace long-since kept happy with both the Kleiber and Kubelik studio recordings, exquisitely crafted artefacts the pair.

Even the – all-important in this work – sound effects were in large part fudged or fumbled. Yes, we got the dramatically necessary bell, tolling first midnight and then 1am on either side of the Wolfsschluchtszene (though a spavined, tubular-tinny specimen it was): but of the endless rifle-cracks that punctuate all three acts and serve no less a dramatic function, not a pop. The chorus – who as invisible ghosts aren’t even supposed to be on stage in the Wolf’s Glen, and didn’t need to be so here either – were instead ridiculously invited to sing their “Uhui”s through black paper megaphones, dinky ones for the women, big ones for the men. Er, why? If the intention was to mimic offstage ululation, it failed miserably: indeed, as any fool could tell you, put a megaphone in front of someone’s mouth and far from sounding further off or somehow mysterious, they will of course sound even louder and more prosaic. All they needed to do was turn around and face the upstage wall immediately behind them and lower their heads to the floor (sticking their hands over their mouths if they were still too loud) to achieve the proper result. But no: it’s at times like this that I genuinely wonder when, and why, everybody became quite so practically clueless.

Samiel’s offstage contributions in II were similarly bungled, given to the light-toned Stephan Loges (doubling as a weak-voiced Ottakar in III) who was then improperly amplified anyway. Of the absolutely terrifying voice-of-doom that killed the woman sitting behind me at the ROH in 1978 (her head landed on my shoulder with a sudden thump, I yelped and she then keeled over into the aisle: this is true, by the way) there was not a trace: and if the astonishing epitome of Schauerromantik, composed entirely out-of-nowhere Wolfsschluchtszene can’t conjure a few corpses in its course, then something’s gone badly wrong.

Ah well, there is always Sir Colin and the LSO to hand to rescue the day musically, though as I said last year, in tones prophetical, in the same Proms review: “There will be a lot of proto-Wagnerian sonority, both vocal and orchestral, as Sir Colin assuredly angles the axis of interest towards the music the opera anticipates rather than recalls. This is fair enough: the score sits there like Janus, facing in two contrary directions simultaneously, one forwards, one back”. And this was indeed exactly the case tonight. Fielding a string band of 60 – much larger than the Kirov did for late Wagner and Verdi, please note – the LSO gave a performance that was in essentials massively Wagnerian, with fat, rich tone and much thickly-blended melos. It’s impressive as sheer sound: but Weber – writing, please remember, in 1818, not 1878 – wouldn’t have even recognised the half of it as his own music.

I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have known what the singers were up to either, since the principals were all miscast as part of the general Wagnerian inflation of the work’s scale. Thus, Sally Matthews was singing Ännchen when she should have been the Agathe: Lucy Hall, who was bizarrely conscripted to sing the parts of all four different Bridesmaids in turn, should have been singing Ännchen: and poor Christine Brewer, singing Agathe, shouldn’t have been singing in this work at all. Much as I love Brewer – and I do: to whom else have I ever given 5 stars here? – she is all wrong for the role. Huge, heroically–sized (um, vocally) with a steely, air-cleaving tone and an inescapably mature, almost matronly tone, she is hopelessly wrong for Weber’s demure teenage Jungfer: Even Matthews’ voice is really too big for it (let alone the role she actually did sing); but she would have been a much better bet even so, younger-sounding, more lithe and limber in turning tight corners (much laborious manoeuvring hereabouts chez Brewer, alas) and capable of manifesting confused innocence rather than projecting imperious, oracular grandeur. Leise, leise fromme Weise found Brewer short of the necessary length of breath to get to the ends of some lines: and Und ob die Wolke became an exercise in treading on eggshells, all reining in and holding back (and in fairness, very expertly done too: but the strain shows, and the result nowhere penetrates to the heart of the character’s very vociferous-but-simple piety).

I thought Sally Matthews’ Ännchen quite fabulously well-sung: rich, even, a real full-bodied, juicy lyric soprano, smoky below and effortless in alt. A lovely piece of singing of real distinction, in fact. Unfortunately, Ännchen is a soubrette role (Marzelline in Fidelio the obvious inspiration). As with Brewer, one salutes a technique that can negotiate such miscasting – in Matthews’ case, the usual-for-the-repertoire coloratura – but still wonders why she should be having to do so at all. This is not the first time Sir Colin has shown a, shall we say, highly individual sense of vocal suitability: it used to happen often enough at Covent Garden; and only recently he chose Schwanewilms – who would have been perfect here as Agathe – to sing a very discommoded Desdemona instead. As the Americans say with deadpan despair: go figure. And then there was her Otello, Simon O’Neill, as tonight’s Max. As casting goes this is somewhat less peculiar: whenever I heard the opera at the ROH, it was with either René Kollo or Peter Hofmann in the role, Lohengrins and Parsifals both. But then, they were under Sir Colin as well. It is surely possible to perform a role written in 1818 as if it had been written for a Tamino or Florestan – known points of reference available to Weber as models – than to somehow credit him with more than just musical prescience and to imagine that he really had a Siegmund or Tristan-type voice in mind. Still, O’Neill slots in to Sir Colin’s Wagnerian conception admirably, and was in far more pleasing voice than last year’s Walthers found him at Covent Garden. It’s still a notably nasal, reedy business: but the focus is tight, the tone secure, and the scale and stamina unstinting. Poor love, he’s no kind of actor, even of the vocal variety: but his commitment to the matter in hand is absolute, and not a note emerged tonight either ill-tuned or ill-turned. Ideally, more lyric juice is what’s wanted, and a bit less steely clarion ping: but given the almost universal miscasting elsewhere, this specimen went relatively well.

In sharp contrast to this veritable orgy of overcasting, Stephan Loges made thin beer of his dual assignment as Samiel and the Prince: my first Ottakar was Donald McIntyre, then the ROH and Bayreuth’s resident Wotan (and surprisingly funny as a bewigged and knee-breeched prince, socially aghast at being surrounded by butch hunters). Undercasting this role when you’ve overcast virtually all the others is plain weird, but there it is. Happily, however, there were a few people involved tonight doing what they ought. One was Marcus Farnsworth, a perfectly-rendered Kilian, warm and of exactly the right size and weight. Another was Martin Snell as Agathe’s father Kuno, a most distinguished sounding bass with more than a passing touch of Kurt Moll’s richness, solidity and depth of timbre. Why does he not sing here regularly? At a time when the ROH fields a voiceless Italian as Monterone in Rigoletto, why are they importing at all when a voice of this quality is (presumably) going begging? And then there’s Gidon Saks – another one whose absence in Bow St. is an ongoing scandal – not, as last year, singing Kaspar (quite wonderfully), but this time the Hermit. Wandering on at the end looking like a giant version of Robert Downey Jnr. with a discreetly slashed-open-to-the-sternum evening shirt, he brought a touch of real distinction, both of voice and carriage, to his small-but-crucial part.

In stark sartorial contrast, Lars Woldt – subbing at the last minute for an indisposed Falk Struckmann as Kaspar – turned up in ill-fitting day-wear, which left me wondering if it was some subtle statement about Kaspar’s status within the drama (yeah, right). He’s a bit of a blusterer: and he’s the sort of neither/nor bass-baritone who gets caught out occasionally both up top and down below. But he also fielded much the best German of anybody involved, with crystal-clear diction, and any amount of role-identification (one I imagine he’s done often on stage back home in Vienna). He single-handedly salvaged the Wolfsschluchtszene from its otherwise pretty inadequate realisation. The hundred-strong LSO chorus enjoyed themselves – as well they might – as snotty peasants (Davis gets the lumpen Breughelesque stamp of their music off to perfection) and otherworldly spirits, singing with tremendous verve and gusto (too much so as ghosts, alas). And Sir Colin’s old band ever-so-slightly raised their already-high game for their old chief, playing with brio and great technical address (if surely on too large a scale, with too much saturated fat in the strings). Watching him at work at close quarters, musically he belies his 84 years, though a few passages did receive his latter-day marmoreal Mozart treatment (principally Brewer’s music, thereby leaving the poor woman doubly handicapped). But for the most part, though increasingly frail (and I can’t tell you how seeing the idols of my youth like Mackerras and Haitink and Previn and Davis physically decline in their eighties has started to really upset me: it must be like seeing your parents get old, for those whose did) he retains a firm grip on the musical architecture of the work and inspires his forces to give of their best, at least insofar as this particularly unnecessary, half-arsed compromise of a “text” permits.

I ended up last year’s Proms review of the John Eliot Gardiner performance by regretting that so small-scale and mimsy – orchestrally and much more so vocally – an approach to the opera had been put on in London’s biggest and least tractable hall: so there is, I suppose, a quaint – if unwelcome – irony in this time bemoaning that the work is instead now so overinflated both cast- and band-wise that it rather overwhelms the available acoustic. Plainly they should have been performed the other way round. Ah well. Obviously, there’s no pleasing some people (e.g. me). But if any of the above appeals, and you can bear the performance practices employed, you should still turn out for the repeat on Saturday. In its own odd way, it’s quite the collector’s item. I bet I end up going…

Stephen Jay-Taylor

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