|Cast of Heartbeat Opera's production of Der Freischütz|
We count on Heartbeat Opera to take an opera and shake it up; we count on Heartbeat Opera to stir our feelings. With a very rare exception we enjoy the process and we always leave provoked in some way, ready to reconsider issues that were previously given the "already/always" treatment. (If you are so inclined, dear reader, take a look at our review of their production of Beethoven's Fidelio by entering it in the search bar.)
Last night at the Rose Nagelberg Theater of the Baruch Performing Arts Center we saw Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz, an opera that we had never seen and, therefore, felt no investment in preserving in its original form, as we would with, say, La Traviata. As a matter of fact, we avoided reading anything about the opera beforehand, and especially not the Director's Notes. We firmly hold the position that a work of art should speak for itself! This one spoke loud and clear.
The story is based upon a German folk legend with supernatural elements and contains spoken dialogue which, we posit, puts it in the category of singspiel, like Die Zauberflöte. For this production, the story was moved up from its original setting (as we have since learned) in 1648 Germany to contemporary United States.
It appears to be post-Afghanistan or post-Iraq and takes place in what must be a Red state since all the men are armed and very much attached to their guns. We sensed that the hero Max and his buddy Kaspar are veterans. The townspeople are a nasty bunch and infected with toxic masculinity. The chief forester Kuno of the original has been changed to a sheriff whilst Max and Kaspar seem to be his deputies.
Max wants to marry Kuno's daughter Agathe but Kuno insists that his prospective son-in-law be the best shot in town; Max seems to have lost his groove and suffers humiliation at the hands of the locals; their particular form of torture seems to be a form of waterboarding (learned in Iraq, we presume).
Max is now ripe for the machinations of Kaspar who promises to solve his problems--with a little supernatural help. Let us leave the story here for awhile so we can give credit where it is due.
Friedrich Kind's original libretto has been adapted by Co-Artistic Director Louisa Proske who, in our eyes, is some kind of artistic genius. Dialogues were written by Michael Attias; we have no idea how closely they hew to the original German but they succeed in telling the story and making it work.
The music is as von Weber wrote it and it is magnificent. Music Director Daniel Schlosberg has scored the work for piano/keyboard/accordion (which he played himself), violin and viola (played by Concertmaster Jacob Ashworth), another set of higher strings, a cello, a guitar, and several winds played by three additional musicians. There was a great deal of sound coming from seven musicians!
Never having heard the orchestral version, we have no basis for comparison but what we heard was glorious to the ear and filled with interesting harmonies and sonorities. From the first wind chorale, we were completely drawn in.
We might add that the supernatural scene taking place in the Wolf Canyon involves some electronic input (credited to William Gardiner) that felt just right. The direction of this scene (Direction by Ms. Proske and Chloe Treat) was the most chilling scene we have ever witnessed at the opera, thanks to some special effects like visions, smoke, and a very talented Butoh dancer named azumi O E who enacted the part of Samiel with twisted body and twisted hands. The entire effect was cinematic and would have been right at home in a horror film.
We realize we have yet to mention the singers who were uniformly excellent in their acting as well as singing. Tenor Ian Koziara made a sympathetic "underdog" and we truly felt for him. Poor Agathe was portrayed by soprano Summer Hassan who excelled at being the tortured bride-to-be, anxious about Max and the upcoming wedding. The scene in which her bridesmaids come to help her with her toilette was a marvel.
We loved soprano Jana McIntyre as her cousin Ännchen; she had quite a lot to sing and sang it well. We enjoyed the contrast between Agathe's heavy hearted singing and Ännchen's cheerful singing. Von Weber's vocal lines and rhythms beautifully limned each character.
The manipulative Kaspar was powerfully sung and acted by bass-baritone Derrell Acon. Baritone Quentin Oliver Lee sang the role of the Governor, and also that of one of the locals named Kilian. Sheriff Kuno was portrayed with strength by bass Kevin McGuire.
We were happy to see bass Eric Delagrange in a role at the end that puzzled us. As deus ex machina, he is supposed to be a holy hermit but in this iteration he seemed threatening. We are going to have to think about that issue for awhile.
The female chorus was superb, comprising Emily Donato, Jessica Harika, Claire Leyden, and Siobhan Sung. No less superb were the men: Phillip Bullock, Michael Celentano, Cory Gross, Patrick Lord-Remmert, and Anthony McGlaun.
The set by Sara Brown was remarkable. The Rose Nagelberg Theater was converted into a small town with the audience on three sides, making us feel very much a part of the action and therefore complicit. A house was constructed in one corner with shades that rolled up, giving us a view of the action inside. Wolf Canyon was created with "smoke and mirrors", a miracle of lighting by Oliver Wason. Beth Goldenberg's costumes were on point.
The amount of creativity that went into this provocative production impressed us enormously but what really mattered was the effect the production had on us, since it related so deeply to contemporary issues: military PTSD, gun culture, toxic masculinity, superstition, etc.
We were so affected by it that we plan to return to hear the other cast and to sit on the other side to get a different perspective and perhaps some additional insights.
© meche kroop