Virginia Opera hits the target with a winning “Freischütz”
After striking productions of Aida, Philip Glass’s Orphée, and Hansel and Gretel, Virginia Opera has seemed content recently to return to mostly opera chestnuts. This season’s winning production of Carl Maria von Weber’s ghost story Der Freischütz is a welcome exception, heard Sunday afternoon at the George Mason University Center for the Arts in Fairfax. The company is about to make its official announcement for a more daring new season in 2017-2018, to include Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Music historians cite Weber’s Gothic opera, about a hunter down on his luck who turns to the Devil for help, mainly as a major influence on the young Richard Wagner. Here was a German opera with a German text and a German story, not coincidentally including a virtuous, innocent woman, Agathe, who is the salvation of the man she loves. The opera reaches the stage rarely enough outside Germany that it is worth seeing whenever it comes around, and this production, set by director Stephen Lawless in 19th-century America, has many things going for it.
At the top of the cast are two excellent singers. Tenor Corey Bix had a dark-hued but still ringing tone as Max, the unlucky marksman under pressure to win the shooting competition so that he can marry Agathe. His legato singing was smooth and affecting in the character’s opening slow aria, and the top notes were all placed sagely, with a generally hapless stage presence that suited the role well. Soprano Kara Shay Thomson, in a strong company debut as Agathe, showed impeccable breath support and luscious tone in the Act II prayer scene. In the equally striking first scene of Act III, Thomson gauged the power of her voice appropriately to the room, creating confident swells up to soaring notes that still retained a virginal quality.
The supporting cast was mixed but still generally good. Bass-baritone Joseph Barron made a snarling Kaspar, the doomed hunter who hopes to wiggle out of his own deal with the Devil by putting Max in his place. In his first aria, Barron hit the high staccato notes that punctuate the piece with grace and strength. Young singers from the Herndon Foundation Emerging Artist program took many of the other roles, to varying degrees of success. Soprano Katherine Polit, a former member of the program, was a flighty Ännchen, airy of tone but without the sparkling power the role needs.
Adam Turner, the principal conductor of Virginia Opera now in his third season, led a cohesive performance of this lesser-known score, with fine contributions from the members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Highlights included a beautiful extended cello solo in the third act, as well as heraldic sound from the four horn players in the Hunters Chorus. The chorus, prepared by assistant conductor Aaron Breid, was a vital presence, especially in the unsettling bridal scene in Act III.
Director Stephen Lawless shifted the action to a German immigrant community in an unnamed northeastern U.S. state, complete with square dancing and other local touches. He has smoothed over many of the less convincing aspects of this idea by adapting Dan Dooner’s English translation of the libretto for the singers to use. When the hunters showed their pride in their rifles in the first act, it was a humorous reminder that the headquarters of the National Rifle Association were nearby. The hunters deciding to lay down their beloved guns before the Hermit at the conclusion seemed less plausible. Although some details of Lawless’s staging did not make sense, his handling of the Wolf’s Glen scene at the end of Act II, the most famous in the opera, was chilling and effective.
Der Freischütz will be repeated 8 p.m. February 17 and 2:30 p.m. February 19 at the Dominion Arts Center in Richmond. dominionartscenter.com; 804-592-3353.