Der Freischütz, OAE, Elder, RFH | reviews, news & interviews
Der Freischütz, OAE, Elder, RFH
Der Freischütz, OAE, Elder, RFH
Period orchestra shines for its anniversary celebration
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is 30 years old, and last night it celebrated in style. The orchestra has a long association with the music of Weber, who became iconic of their pioneering work in presenting 19th-century repertoire on period instruments. His greatest work received an impressive performance last night, one that demonstrated the many virtues of their unique approach to the work of the Romantics. But it wasn’t all a success, and was let down by a surprisingly modest staging concept from the usually ambitious David Pountney.
The music of the opera is framed by Pountney in a series of narrations, presented by John Tomlinson in the guise of the Hermit. The text paraphrases both the stage directions and the dialogue usually spoken by the singers. On occasion he has to resort to dialogue being read out by Tomlinson while the singers mime, as in the confrontation between Max and Agathe in Act Two, but generally, the Hermit-cum-narrator maintains his authority over the actions he describes. Unfortunately, Tomlinson never really got into the role. The dramatic conceit was that he, as the hermit, was writing out the tale at his lectern, while he was clearly reading it, and often unsteadily. Tomlinson never lacks for charisma or stage presence, but it seemed that Pountney relied too much on these when more dramatic impetus was required. Tomlinson, however, more than redeemed himself with his sung contributions, first as Samiel in the Wolf’s Glen scene and then in the Hermit part proper in the finale, where his still-commanding voice easily dominated an ensemble made up of singers many decades his junior.
The remainder of the cast was never less than serviceable, with a few real standout performances. The best of these was Simon Bailey (pictured left) as Kaspar. The dark tone of his voice is ideal for the part, and although he has a tendency to ham up the menacing stage presence, especially the evil laugh, it all served to inject sorely needed drama to the proceedings. The Wolf’s Glen scene was the highlight of the performance, partly because Pountney finally found a way to make his minimalist conception deliver, but also because it was dominated by Bailey’s Kaspar and Tomlinson’s Samiel. Rachel Willis-Sørenson (pictured below, by Trevor Goldstein) was just as convincing as Agathe, bringing real star quality to the big arias at the start of the second and third acts. She has an indulgent vibrato, one that none of the violinists in the OAE would ever get away with, but otherwise the purity and sheer beauty of her tone are ideal for the role.
Christopher Ventris didn’t impress to the same extent as Max. He looks and sounds old for the role, and sometimes struggles in the upper register. Further down the cast, there were uninspiring vocal performances too from Wyn Pencarreg as Kuno and William Dazeley as Ottokar, both often overpowered by the modest string ensemble, and in the finale overshadowed by Tomlinson. An impressive Ännchen, though, from Sarah Tynan, who gave an unfussy and elegant account, and a musically strong Bridesmaids Chorus was provided by singers from the Royal Academy of Music.
Mark Elder ensured the performance had plenty of drive and energy. He’s a natural choice here, a long-time collaborator with the orchestra and one of the most versatile opera conductors working today. He has the all-too-rare ability to engage with singers who are standing behind him, and to integrate every aspect of the performance without any feeling of over-control. The London Philharmonic Choir were generally on good form, their ensemble sometimes a little loose, as in the, admittedly complex, music of the shooting competition, but coming together admirably for the finale.
Best of all, though, was the orchestra, whose performance dominated the evening. Weber’s instrumental writing is always imaginative, and he has a real ear for unusual colours and textures. The period brass was typically raspy, but absolutely ideal in the Wolf’s Glen, where the dark trombone tone defined the mood. Good ensemble and balance from the strings, with particularly impressive clarity in the mid-register, the violas and cellos coming though with fascinating lines that are often missed. And the woodwind section was excellent throughout. Weber finds moments for each of the principals to shine, and that they did, particularly clarinettist Anthony Pay and flautist Lisa Beznosiuk. A mixed evening then, but one that achieved its aim, to showcase the always impressive skills of this distinctive orchestra in its anniversary year.
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