High concept, cold comfort

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When the best things in an opera performance are the special effects, it is time to worry. Especially when this is the Salzburg Festival, with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit and one of the key works of German music history on their music-stands.

As Max finishes casting his magic bullets, columns of fire shoot up from the stage floor and explode into mushroom-shaped conflagrations with a whoosh. The heat reaches the back row of the new Haus für Mozart. If Falk Richter is lucky, that will be all his public eventually remembers of his adolescent take on Weber’s Der Freischütz.

On paper, the festival director Jürgen Flimm’s choices look passable. A proven young theatre director and a conductor known for his skill with new music take on a German romantic blockbuster: fresh insights guaranteed, surely?

Not really. Richter has decided that the German shooting competition – a tradition still alive and well in many villages – was really master-minded by the military, in order to single out the best marksmen for their own ends. He has updated it to the present, and set it in a place that he obviously wants us to think of as rightwing America. In case we miss the point, he adds large screeds of didactic dialogue, which often lapses into pseudo-Hollywood English. “Be a man, for Chrissakes,” Kasper urges Max, then explains: “Rape, war, invasion/Burnt children, low taxes and religion/That is what we would kill for/That is what our hearts yearn for.”

Samiel (played with relish by Ignaz Kirchner) wears white and loves it when his minions get devout. He has two verbose interpolated “helpers” who explain to us that the magic bullets contain uranium and a pinch of genocide. They distribute crosses to the chorus and use the dead Kaspar’s blood to write “In God we trust” on the wall during the final scene. Richter wants to tell us that ambition, success and money are the roots of all evil. He has won himself a huge budget and a gig at Europe’s most prestigious festival to do so. Hallelujah.

In Alex Harb’s concrete bunker sets, Richter pads the townspeople out with fake fat and lets them bop on the beat, parody Yankee plebs. He adds lashings of video (Chris Kondek), giving homage to David Lynch with derivative clips. But for their big arias he lets the singers move to the front of the stage and glue their attention to the conductor, falling back on a few stock gestures.

Peter Seiffert makes an imposing Max, with a hefty and colourful heroic tenor that now seems a few sizes too big for the role. Petra Maria Schnitzer is a correspondingly mature Agathe, with ripe and beautifully burnished tones that slip a little lower on each successive venture into the upper register. Aleksandra Kurzak’s Annchen sparkles, Roland Bracht’s Kuno sounds satiny, John Relyea’s Kaspar is deliciously deep and dangerous, the smaller roles are well-cast.

On the podium, Markus Stenz strives for an edgy, updated sound and is rewarded by stubborn recalcitrance from his players. Some startling colours do emerge, but the evening’s orchestral hallmarks are scraggly ensemble, audible accidents and indifferent intonation.

Der Freischütz, with its tricky mix of spoken dialogue and song, is a difficult piece to pull off today. But not that difficult. Opening-night boos were easy to understand. For Salzburg ticket prices, it is fair to expect a finished product with something to say. All those involved have done much better work elsewhere. When a high-luxury festival serves up mid- range artists performing well below standard, something has gone badly wrong.

www.salzburgfestival.at

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