I wasn’t planning to see “Der Freischütz” (The Marksman) on Saturday night. A seminal work of German Romanticism that was hugely influential on German opera, it is seldom staged in the United States, where audiences tend to put a premium on more emotional stories.
But the music, by Carl Maria von Weber, is really lovely, and when I found the day before the performance that I had one of the opera’s signature arias running repeatedly through my head, I decided to expel the earworm by driving out to Fairfax and seeing what director Stephen Lawless and the Virginia Opera forces were going to make of it. Kudos to the Virginia Opera for venturing off the too-beaten operatic path, and taking me along with it.
The first question in opera about a historic work is: Was it staged “traditionally,” or updated? Given that the quintessential Germanness of “Freischütz” might not have a lot of appeal in this country, I can understand why Lawless and his production team chose to shift the opera to a period American setting, sung in English, with references to “the old country” worked into the spoken dialogue.
But their updating was too timid. Sticking to the work’s basic contours with such fidelity meant that the American touches were merely distracting. Having choristers in Lederhosen and shorts alongside the Buffalo Bill get-up (complete with tin sheriff star) of the head ranger Kuno (Kevin Langan) contributed to an impression that the community in which the eponymous marksman, Max, and his beloved Agathe lived was some kind of religious sect.
If “Der Freischütz” speaks to a contemporary audience without a burning interest in German opera, it might be through its Gothic elements. Our country, after all, has preserved its own links to the 19th-century fascination with the supernatural — from “Frankenstein” to “Twilight.” Admittedly, “Freischütz’s” plot is even more dated. It hinges on a scene in a haunted wood where Max, who has to win a shooting contest to be able to marry Agathe, goes with his villainous crony Kaspar at midnight to get magic bullets from the Devil. The haunted-wood thing is hard to stage; on Saturday, what it most evoked was a Halloween haunted house, its “terrors” including glow-in-the-dark makeup and cartoony amplification for the Devil, Samiil. I wish that the production had gone further in embracing what could be delightful camp.
This, too, would have helped counteract the problem with the main characters, who, if you try to make them realistic, become too neurotic to be appealing: Max freaking out about his shooting ability; Agathe bedeviled by premonitions about their wedding. Kara Shay Thomson, her voice a little hard-edge but secure, did credit to Agathe’s excellent music, particularly the second of her two showpiece arias. Corey Bix’s singing sounded as unsure as Max’s shooting, tending to waver at big moments. Joseph Barron was respectable as Kaspar, and Trevor Neal was appealing as the huntsman Kilian. Adam Turner, the conductor, led with a firm hand a score that was certainly the best part of the evening.
A little more attitude on stage, however, would have gone far. In the final scene, Jake Gardner, a veteran bass-baritone relying on force of experience rather than voice, who had already appeared as Samiil, played a preacher exhorting the governor Ottokar (Andrew Paulson, weak of voice) to give Max a year’s probation instead of a death sentence. At the moment of the happy-ish ending, Thomson’s Agathe pulled away her hand, leaving the future of their relationship open to question. Girl, you should have done that two hours ago.
The Virginia Opera’s season closes with “Turandot” in March. The 2017-18 season, just announced, includes Saint-Saens’s “Samson and Delilah,” Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West,” Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”