Corporate Cruelty: Der Freischütz from the Bayerische Staatsoper

Weber – Der Freischütz

Ottokar – Boris Prýgl
Kuno – Bálint Szabó
Agathe – Golda Schultz
Ännchen – Anna Prohaska
Kaspar / Samiel – Kyle Ketelsen
Max – Pavel Černoch
Ein Eremit – Tareq Nazmi
Kilian – Milan Siljanov
Vier Brautjungfern – Eliza Boom, Sarah Gilford, Daria Proszek, Zhang Yajie

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Antonello Manacorda.
Stage director – Dmitri Tcherniakov.  Video director – Andy Sommer.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, February 13th, 2021.  Streamed via Staatsoper.tv

For its latest premiere, the Bayerische Staatsoper turned to Dmitri Tcherniakov, a frequent visitor to the Nationaltheater, to stage this new Freischütz.  Antonello Manacorda, another regular, returned to conduct a cast of house regulars and guests.  Of course, with Tcherniakov, one would not expect a conventional Freischütz and that’s certainly not what we got here.  Instead, he gives us a reflection on the cruelty inherent in contemporary corporate society and one man’s disintegration within it – a theme he explored elsewhere in his Carmen in Aix-en-Provence.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

In common with his Zurich Makropulous Case, Tcherniakov uses the prologue to illustrate the character’s backstories – here projecting their faces above the stage, accompanied with brief biographies.  Kuno is a corporate boss, Max an eager employee who wants to do well, and Agathe Kuno’s daughter who has set herself up on her own.  Kaspar is a colleague who, thanks to previous military service, is psychologically unstable and appears to have multiple personality disorder, while Ännchen parades around the stage in sapphic chic and clearly carries a torch for Agathe, which renders her ode to men somewhat superfluous.  Within the single set, also designed by Tcherniakov, the action opens during an alcohol-fuelled corporate celebration, with Max being forced to take a shot, using a rifle, at a passing pedestrian outside.  When he refuses, Kilian takes it instead, apparently killing the pedestrian.  This sets in train a series of events that plot Max’s disintegration, whether in his after-hours encounter in being taunted by Kaspar/Samiel, or his drunken appearance at his own wedding that seals his fate.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This was illustrated with thrilling immediacy by Pavel Černoch as Max and Kyle Ketelsen as Kaspar/Samiel, both gentlemen throwing themselves into everything asked of them – with Černoch in particular having to be wrapped in plastic and dragged onto stage by Ketelsen, while Ketelsen was also physically fearless.  That they were able to do so and act so uninhibitedly, and in such close proximity to each other, is a tributed to the hygiene concept in place at the Staatsoper.  I found Tcherniakov’s reading an entirely logical one although, and this could be purely as a result of watching it on the small screen rather than in the house, it did leave me cold.  I found it hard to care about Max’s disintegration.  It felt that we were watching from the outside and never able to connect.  This is in no way an indictment of Černoch’s no-holds-barred performance, but rather that this was a performance that filled me with admiration, but left me emotionally disengaged.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Similarly, with Golda Schultz’s Agathe, the character felt rather cold, with Schultz pensively walking around the stage, singing her numbers to the side, without a sense that she was fully engaged in them.  Again, this is no reflection on Schultz’s performance, but rather that as directed, her character felt disconnected from what was happening around her.  An impression heightened by the fact that much of the dialogue between Agathe and Ännchen happened in the surtitles, as if they were texting each other in the same room.  Schultz did, however, sing her music exquisitely.  I did wonder if the voice is rather small for the role, but her peaches and cream soprano, with its creamy core and effervescent vibrato, gives an enormous amount of pleasure.  It sounded that she might have appreciated ‘Leise, leise’ a notch or two faster, the breath not quite optimally sustained, but she sang ‘Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle’ with wonderful poise.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Černoch sang Max with a bright, well-focused tenor.  As recorded here, the tone sounded a lot more brittle than when I’ve heard him live in the past. Indeed, there was a general tendency for the voices to be somewhat recessed in the sound mix.  He coped well with the high-lying demands of the role, the voice soaring without a hint of strain and his dedication to the staging was staggering.  Ketelsen sang and spoke his lines in impeccable German, his bass-baritone utterly firm and even throughout the range, the tone emerging as a column of laser-focused sound.  He was also a highly energetic stage presence and, as with Černoch, his dedication to all that was asked of him, especially in these times, was inspirational.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Anna Prohaska’s Ännchen was confidently sung.  The intonation issues that have limited my enjoyment of her singing in the past seemed less troublesome here, although the tone inclined to shallowness higher up.  She was an engaging stage presence and dispatched her music with admirable agility.  Tareq Nazmi made a significant impression as the Eremit, his bass sounding utterly healthy, enveloping the listener in a bath of liquid warmth, combined with immaculate clarity of diction.  Boris Prýgl dispatched Ottakar’s music in a focused bass-baritone, again with notable textual clarity.  The remaining roles reflected the exceptional standards of this address, as did the house chorus on enthusiastically lusty form.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester played with confidence for Manacorda who led a reading that was logical and fluent.  Tempi were sensibly swift, although it did feel that Agathe’s two numbers could have been taken at a more flowing pace.  The horns were on terrific form, playing with remarkable accuracy in their bucolic interventions.  Strings played with crisp attack, and other than a few momentary passages of sour intonation, acquitted themselves well.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Tcherniakov’s reading of Freischütz makes for an interesting evening in the theatre.  He gives us a commentary on the cruelty of the corporate world and, by charting one man’s disintegration within it, shows us what can happen when the vulnerable are taken advantage of.  Yet despite performances of astounding commitment throughout the cast, it all felt rather clinical and unfeeling.  Of course, this could simply be the effect of watching on the small screen at a distance.  That said, as always, thanks are due to the Bayerische Staatsoper for giving us opera at the highest level, fully staged, without inhibitions at this exceptionally difficult time.  Even if the staging left me with reservations, getting to experience art at this level, at a time when we’re deprived of it and need it more then ever, is priceless

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