Before the start of Heartbeat Opera’s production of Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” which opened on Wednesday at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan, Louisa Proske, who conceived and co-directed the staging, told the audience that the mission of this small but ambitious company was to present “radical adaptations” of familiar works.
On that count, this inventive “Freischütz” delivered. The story was shifted from a rustic community in mid-1600s Bohemia to a town in contemporary Texas. Yet the updating was actually the least radical element.
“Der Freischütz,” which loosely translates as “The Marksman” and runs at Baruch through Dec. 14, takes place in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War. It is a culture in which hunting and marksmanship are rituals of manhood; where rowdy gatherings at the local tavern and sentimental paeans to healthy rural life go hand in hand; and where citizens are prone to superstition and see evil forces at work everywhere.
The translation of this story into contemporary American life was “disturbingly easy,” as Chloe Treat, Ms. Proske’s co-director, said in a recent interview with The New York Times. The Texas town we encounter here — centered on a ramshackle tavern, in Sara Brown’s imaginative set — is steeped in toxic masculinity, gun culture and the demonization of outsiders.
Weber’s main character, Max, is a decent but weak-willed assistant forester who wants to inherit the top job — and with it the de facto leadership of the town — from Kuno, as well as marry Kuno’s winsome daughter, Agathe. But first he must prove himself in a shooting contest. In this staging, Kuno became the town’s sheriff, with Max his earnest but bumbling deputy, routinely subjected to bullying by the community’s young alpha men.
Many opera stagings update works in just this way. But Heartbeat Opera is far more unusual in its tweaking (and trimming) of librettos and its reorchestration of scores. Passages of spoken dialogue in this “Freischütz” have been rewritten and are delivered with salty American slang. And the music director, Daniel Schlosberg, has effectively transformed Weber’s colorful score for seven players, some on multiple instruments.
But that’s not all. For Weber’s most original scene, which takes place in the haunted Wolf’s Glen, Mr. Schlosberg has transformed the orchestration into a collage of electronic and acoustic sounds, in effect a recomposition, set here in the smoky, mysterious Wolf Canyon.
Why not? “Der Freischütz,” a seminal German opera first performed in 1821, remains a rarity in America. Weber dared to mix opulent arias and ensembles with catchy songs and dances, hints of folk tunes and spoken drama, all to conjure a world of both everyday life and fantasy. Heartbeat’s production team wanted to delve into the work’s disturbing, timely subtexts by streamlining and modernizing it. They succeed.
The most daring adaptation concerns the character of Kaspar, Max’s rival, who has made a Faustian pact with a devilish spirit, Samiel (here played by the sinewy dancer Azumi O E). Heartbeat’s Kaspar is a returning Iraq war veteran — a brutish and maniacal but surprisingly sympathetic character, sung on Wednesday by the robust bass-baritone Derrell Acon. (The main roles are double cast for the run.)
Weber’s Kaspar draws on dark spirits to lure Max into a web of darkness. Heartbeat’s version, by contrast, is a cynical realist who knows firsthand what killing involves. Where he has been, marksmanship is not just proof of manliness, but also means of survival.
The husky-voiced tenor Ian Koziara made a vulnerable Max, hamstrung by bullying and desperate to find some means — any means — to prevail. The soprano Summer Hassan brought an ample, dark-hued voice to Agathe. Quentin Oliver Lee as Kilian, a big-shot townsman, and Kevin McGuire, as Kuno, were both excellent. The bright-voiced soprano Jana McIntyre was wonderful as Annchen, Agathe’s sassy cousin.
While the dialogue is spoken in English, all the music is sung in the original German. By keeping the music in the original language and style, the contrast between American ambience and classic Romanticism made a powerful impact. Here was a rare presentation of the work that would define 19th-century German opera, made topical in a way that both respected Weber and stretched him.
Continues, with two casts, through Dec. 14 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, Manhattan; heartbeatopera.org.
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