Neither a cult figure nor yet a brand, but something of a legend, Armin Holz has over the past two decades designed and directed a handful of productions that stand as landmarks of the contemporary German theater — an Importance of Being Earnest in a greenhouse, a Miss Julie in a castle, a long- running Twelfth Night that showcased an all-star ensemble of stage veterans sixty and over. With the Mannheim Freischütz (premiere October 25), he has crossed over into opera.
Der Freischütz revolves around the young sharpshooter Max (here sung by István Kovácsházi, investing the clean, expressive tones of an oratorio singer with a certain nervous despair). Of late, Max has been missing his mark — a failing that threatens to cost him the hand of his bride, Agathe (Ludmila Slepneva, an MGM beauty, glamorous but blank). Max's secret nemesis is the blackguard Kaspar (the frisky Thomas Jesatko), whose soul is forfeit to the devil.
In traditional stagings, the supernatural hocus-pocus can seem merely quaint. Yet in congenial circumstances, the volatile spirit of German Romanticism (which pretty much took wing with Der Freischütz) can still resonate. Sprinkling jaunty, defensive ironies over gloomy transcendental longings, Holz's phosphorescent show bridges Weber's era and our own.
Without violating the spirit of the libretto, Holz takes considerable liberties with its spoken texts. The Hermit, who much later appears as deus ex machina (John in Eichen), opens the evening in tones of prophetic horror, recounting a dream that has shaken him to the core. (Weber's ravishing overture follows.) Book scenes give way to monologues for Samiel, the evil one, who stalks the stage in a stovepipe hat, preening like the Emcee of Cabaret. Give this devil his due; as ringmaster and puppeteer, Samiel never lets us forget the story's high stakes. Of the principals, only Max — here a bespectacled man on the street vaguely resembling Franz Schubert, or perhaps Albert Einstein — emerges in the round. Rather than a feature of the landscape, the abyss he stares into in the climactic Wolf's Glen scene is his own soul, symbolized by his reflection in a mirror.
Bounded by a cyclorama, the stage epitomizes the empty space once postulated by Peter Brook, yet there is much to draw the eye. Matthias Weischer, a rising star on the international art scene, collaborated on the decor. The evocative, almost heraldic images that emblazon an assortment of odd-shaped steles — an owl, a male nude, a rifle — are painted by Weischer's own hand. The costumes, by Esther Walz, run the gamut from a shaman's cape for the Hermit to chic party dresses for Agathe's vivacious cousin Ännchen. Under Sebastian Alphons's lighting, people and objects are bathed in a rainbow palette of shifting colors. Frequent yet subtle use of a turntable modulates moods as well as perspectives. Echoing voices, electronic sound collages and recitatives for Agathe and Ännchen (written by Berlioz for Paris) deepen the spell.
On the podium, Alois Seidlmeier masterminded a transparent and vibrant account of Weber's ravishing instrumental textures. The chorus — singing mostly from boxes in the auditorium — performed at an exciting level. Theatrically, the heavy lifting fell to the snide Samiel of Klaus Schreiber, a stage actor of remarkable mental powers. Violetta Helwig sparkled in the minuscule role of a Bridesmaid. But at curtain calls, it was Tamara Banješevic as Ännchen who stole the ovations, and no wonder, since she had executed her part in bell-like tones, with a gamine's dancing grace. For the rest, the singers delivered conscientious, solid and in some lesser roles highly energized performances, duly rewarded with respectful applause. When Holz & Co. stepped out, a few valiant bravos pierced a wall of boos. But then, first-nighters in Germany have a way of acting on reflex, like Pavlov's dogs. Future audiences should find much to fascinate them — and much to think about — in this production.