Virginia Opera’s ‘Magic Marksman’ deserves a bigger audience

Carl Maria von Weber's delightful "Der Freischütz" -aka "The Magic Marksman" is an early German Romantic opera charmer that should attract a bigger audience.

Crowd scene from Virginia Opera's production of "The Magic Marksman," aka "Der Freischütz," by Carl Maria von Weber. (Photo courtesy Virginia Opera)

FAIRFAX CITY, Virginia, February 5, 2017 – The Virginia Opera paid its latest brief visit to Northern Virginia this past weekend, offering two performances of an opera most American fans of that genre have never heard, nor heard of.

That mystery opera: Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” or “The Marksman,” which the company staged at its customary Fairfax City home, the George Mason University Center for the Arts. The reason this opera is almost completely unknown on this side of the pond is quite simple: Virginia Opera’s performances mark the first time this work has enjoyed a complete professional production in the U.S. since the Met staged it some 45 years ago.

This seems odd. “Der Freischütz”—regarded as the first important German Romantic opera (Beethoven’s “Fidelio” aside)—has continued to be performed in Europe and especially in Germany since it premiered in Berlin in 1821. But why not here? Folksy, melodramatic, and loaded with rousing choral numbers—not to mention an intriguing paranormal event—this is an eminently accessible opera whose only obstacle for cynical modern audiences might be the moral lesson embodied in its finale.

This opera’s unfamiliarity in this country, allegedly, is its very German-ness. It’s based on an old German folk legend well-known and accepted in Germany but alien, perhaps, to American sensibilities. A more likely reason: Over the past 200 years or so, Italian operas written in that period seized the attention of international audiences particularly in the U.S., overshadowing the place Weber’s pioneering work holds in the firmament of German music.

“Freischütz” and Weber’s other operas, including “Oberon”—based on a German poem vaguely related to the plot-line of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and composed to an English language libretto—served as a bridge between Mozart and Wagner in the development of German opera. In addition, Weber’s many other works and his forward-looking orchestrations inspired many German composers including Wagner, but also extending to other major figures like Liszt and Berlioz.

As with its astonishing, attention-grabbing production of Philip Glass’ “Orphée” a few seasons back, Virginia Opera took a chance staging “Der Freischütz.” Putting a largely unknown opera on the schedule almost guarantees anemic ticket sales. But Virginia Opera is to be congratulated for taking on the daunting task of resurrecting a delightful, unknown opera for audiences that would generally prefer another production of “La Bohème.”

Judging from the meager attendance at the Saturday performance of the opera here in Northern Virginia, the company’s gamble may not have paid off in the short run. Yet the company did its level best to show this charming opera to advantage, updating its somewhat creaky 17th century-based plot in a way that made the opera admirably accessible for an American audience. We’d judge this performance as a considerable success.

The Plot

Weber’s original is not so much grand opera or comic opera as it is folk opera. It’s not light or ephemeral. But it is based on a down-to-earth story line involving peasants and tradesmen, not kings, queens or gods, a highly appropriate move during a time in Europe when, in that memorable observation from the comic strip “The Wizard of Id,” “The peasants are revolting.”

No revolution here, though. “Der Freischütz” centers on the qualifying and the final rounds of an annual shooting competition. Max (tenor Cory Blix), an assistant hunter-forester and the opera’s good-hearted but flawed hero, is the country town’s champion marksman and the perennial winner of this annual contest. He’s a bit like an honest Lance Armstrong, but without the steroids.

Problem is, when we meet Max at the beginning of the first act, he has completely choked during the opening rounds, literally outgunned a wealthy tradesman named Killian (baritone Trevor Neal). Mocked by the spectators, Max can’t understand why he’s on such a bad streak, and the evil-looking Kaspar (bass-baritone Joseph Barron), another assistant hunter-forester, hints this might be due to some kind of evil spell—which, we later learn, is exactly what’s going on.

Not only is Max professionally humiliated going in to the final round. He also knows that if he loses, he’ll also lose his only opportunity to marry Agathe (soprano Kara Shay Thompson), his betrothed and the daughter of Kuno (bass Kevin Langan), the area’s senior hunter-forester. The plan is for Kuno to retire and turn his position over to Max so he can support Kuno’s daughter in the style to which she’s accustomed. But if Max loses the contest, he’ll lose it all, including his bride-to-be.

What we’re really dealing with here is a complex variation on the Faust story. Kaspar has sold his soul to the devil—known in this opera as Samiel (bass-baritone Jake Gardner in a speaking role). The bargain is about to come due, so Kaspar has cut another deal with the devil, promising to deliver Max, Agathe and Kuno to Samiel in exchange for a bit more time on earth.

Without getting into further details, Kaspar offers Max a way out of his dilemma, offering him 7 magic bullets, each of which will hit its intended target no matter what. Max accepts this devil’s bargain, leading to the opera’s finale in which the devil’s curse is carried out but with a surprisingly redemptive finale.

The Virginia Opera’s update

To its credit, the Virginia Opera essentially runs with Weber’s story line, but with a pair of important exceptions. First, the setting of the opera is updated time-wise and geographically. The action moves to America in the early 19th century, specifically to the New England- New York-based regions where writer Washington Irving set his country tales—more specifically, his supernatural tale of Sleepy Hollow and its dreaded Headless Horseman.

In keeping with this reset motif, Virginia Opera also does unfamiliar audiences another favor by providing a lively (and occasionally risqué) English language libretto that matches almost perfectly with Weber’s music.

This writer generally has little use for operatic “updates.” But, while the stage settings in this production generally reminded us more of Pennsylvania Dutch country rather than the Hudson River Valley, this update actually works brilliantly. The German folk setting translates perfectly to its new setting at the edge of America’s early frontier.

Now recast as hunters (Max, Kaspar and Killian) and a head game ranger (Kuno), Weber’s characters are absolutely believable as rough-hewn, manly pioneers, right down to their solid religious beliefs and respect for good and evil. By replacing a German mythology with an American counterpart and refashioning this opera’s libretto in more or less modern English, Virginia Opera’s production becomes a more comfortable fit with audiences who don’t know Weber’s work. It’s quite a nifty trick.

The company might have taken things just a bit too far by altering the English meaning of the opera’s title from “The Marksman” or “The Shooter” to “The Magic Marksman.” But even this bit of fanciful revisionism riffs not only on the supernatural elements of the original. It also has potential appeal for audiences young and old who are intrigued by films and TV shows revolving around paranormal phenomena and psychic friends.

Granted, Weber’s spooky second act, staged quite effectively here, isn’t as scary as “The Exorcist” or “Halloween.” But for opera, it was a bit ahead of its time, and its rendition is quite effective in this production.

Weber composed a tuneful but comfortable score for his soloists, with music that does contain a few coloratura bits reminiscent of Mozart, but also looks ahead to the more dramatic variety of 19th century German opera, particularly as exemplified in the work of Richard Wagner.

Another forward-looking aspect of this score is the robust and frequent use of the peasant chorus. The opera’s rousing, very-German choral numbers were, for this writer at least, the highlight of the production, looking forward to the even bigger choruses of Wagner’s earlier operas, particularly “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” The Virginia Opera’s chorus was splendid throughout, and the all-male choral numbers were memorably outstanding.

This takes nothing away from the work of the soloists, however. All the principals sang splendidly, including Jake Gardner, who returned in Act III in the singing role of The Hermit after portraying the spoken role of Samiel in Act II; and baritone Andrew Paulson, who portrayed a convincingly authoritative Governor Ottokar in the finale.

But perhaps the show stealer of the evening was soprano Katherine Polit who sang the relatively minor role of Aennchen, Agathe’s sprightly and unperturbable cousin. In an opera that occasionally gets carried away with religious overtones, the role of Aennchen provides light, slightly comic relief and needs a voice to match. That voice belonged to Ms. Polit, who seems to have had a great deal of fun portraying her character, giving the audience and the cast a lift whenever it was needed.

Aside from a moment or three of uncertainty, the Virginia Opera Orchestra (actually, members of the Virginia Symphony) offered a rich yet nuanced accompaniment to the singers under the baton of Adam Turner.

The performance itself, directed by Shawna Lucey, was crisp, logical and orderly, with both singers and chorus almost always perfectly placed. And the Copland-esque stage settings created by Benoit Dugardyn looked good and were quite effective throughout.

A note on political correctness

Weber’s opera—whether the 17th century German version or Virginia Opera’s 19th century American update—is all about rough, poor but honest peasants whose gun-toting, self-reliant male contingent hunts game to provide food for the family table. If anyone misses this the peasant chorus tells us all about it quite explicitly in Act I.

But during the redemption scene in the final act of this production, all the gun-toting men in the crowd, one by one, dump their rifles in a pile before the hermit, apparently swearing off their guns and the hunt forever. It’s quietly, wordlessly, almost unobtrusively done, but it’s silly and illogical at best, a salute to our relentless and questionable anti-gun crusaders It’s particularly bizarre here in Fairfax County, the home of the NRA’s national headquarters. Or maybe that was part of the point.

This gratuitous anti-gun interpolation violates the characters and the setting of this opera, incongruously undercutting the time and the place of the story line. It’s as if all these rough-hewn pioneers have suddenly decided to go vegan. Why undercut the world this production so successfully re-created by throwing in a PC sermon that doesn’t follow organically from the story?

Most Americans today who find themselves in need of preaching can attend religious observations at the house of worship of their choice. They don’t buy tickets to plays, shows, concerts or the opera just to get a secular sermon. We’d challenge those in the performing arts to leave their PC politics at home, or risk alienating half the potential audience they’re trying to attract.

Final tally

Fortunately, aside from this last-minute irritant, this delightful production of Freischütz deserved a far bigger audience than the one we saw on Saturday in Fairfax. Fortunately, for those who read our reviews on the web, opera buffs who want to see an interesting, tuneful rarity they may never see again, Virginia Opera is wrapping its current run of “The Magic Marksman” with a pair of performances in Richmond this weekend. Richmond opera fans should consider taking a chance on this one. We virtually guarantee they’ll enjoy it.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Virginia Opera will stage two more performances of Weber’s “The Magic Marksman” (“Der Freischütz”) in Richmond on February 17 at 8 p.m. and February 19 at 2:30 p.m. at the Carpenter Theater at Dominion Arts Center, 600 E Grace St, Richmond, VA. For tickets and information, visit the Virginia Opera website.

(Review corrected and updated 7/17/2017)

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