In 1991, Opera Atelier, Toronto's famed baroque opera company, took what at the time seemed an enormous gamble. It decided to leap out of its artistic comfort zone and stage a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, a decidedly non-baroque work. It was a triumph – it's still in Opera Atelier's repertoire.
More than 20 years later, Opera Atelier has gambled again, moving into the 19th century for the first time with a production of Carl Maria von Weber's masterpiece, Der Freischutz.
The gamble has worked again. Opera Atelier's Der Freischutz is a powerful, well-produced and well-executed production, allowing it to adapt its stylized baroque style to a quite different aesthetic with taste and verve.
It took a fair bit of work. Baroque opera is social opera, reproducing on stage with stylized artifice the stratified aristocratic reality of 17th- and 18th-century Europe. It is an art form long on fashion, formal dance, tableau, fantastic scenery, elaborate costumes. Even the Mozart operas that Atelier has added to its repertoire still replay social themes and attitudes, so the baroque elements of dance, stylistic grace and conviviality are essential aspects of them as well.
Not so Der Freischutz. Weber's remarkably forward-looking opera (produced in 1821, when classical composers like Beethoven and Schubert were still alive – both could have attended the premiere) is about the individual, not society. It is the first Romantic opera because it is about men and women face-to-face with fate, the dread, unyielding universe, the void. Society plays virtually no part in the opera's unfolding. The normal baroque stylistic vocabulary fits very poorly here.
Marshall Pynkoski, Opera Atelier's founder and the director of this production, has solved this problem the old-fashioned way. He has cast superb singers in his production and let their musical excellence and the truly remarkable beauty and power of Weber's score dominate the proceedings. And where he has added the production elements for which he and his company are renowned, he has done so with taste and just enough restraint so that they never overwhelm the forward momentum of the production, which is first and foremost musical.
Singers first: Meghan Lindsay made an especially appealing Agathe, the bride-to-be, troubled by dark dreams, who senses that her betrothed, Max has made a deal with the Devil to win her hand. Lindsay had a few tiny problems with pitch in her first act aria, quickly resolved, and the sheer beauty of her voice, and the expressive power of her vocal acting was impressive. Carla Huhtanen as Agathe's cousin, Aanchen, plays the role very much like the Mozart servants she has performed before for Opera Atelier productions, but the range of her voice, and its clear power in all those ranges, almost had her stealing the show. Vasil Garvanliev's Kaspar was sung well, if acted a bit too melodramatically, Gustav Andreassen had a marvellous cameo as the Wise Hermit who makes everything right at opera's end and Curtis Sullivan was a truly malevolent and frightening Samiel, the Devil figure in the piece, even though he performed his entire role seemingly in the nude (more on that in a moment).
But the star of the evening was Kresimir Spicer's Max, the hunter who must win his beloved in a shooting contest, but fears for his success, and thus succumbs to the temptation to use magic bullets in the contest. Spicer acted Max as beautifully as he sang the role, and his despair, fear, and love were believable from start to finish. A very accomplished performance.
So, about those nudes. The most famous scene in Freischutz is the Wolf's Glen scene, where Max receives his doomed, magic bullets, and it's here that Atelier's command of staging worked to full effect. The point of the Wolf's Glen scene is to shock and amaze, and the sight of a dozen seemingly naked bodies, rushing across the stage, waving banners, writhing in torment, haunting Max (and us) certainly did the trick. But did so in a way that never overwhelmed the production, instead heightening its spooky, frightening ambiance. Not all the staging in the piece worked as well, but by and large, the production was balanced extremely well.
This is definitely a production to see – so interesting in so many ways, and exceptionally well-performed. Opera Atelier is remounting a version of that 1991 Magic Flute this season. It's very possible Freischutz is destined to enter their repertory for years to come as well.