At the beginning of 2012 in this space I resolved to miss Spanish stage director Calixto Bieito’s new production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz at Berlin’s Comic Opera. Wisely, I included in that column the caveat that resolutions are made to be broken, and on a wet and windy winter night—one that would put any opera-goer in the proper state of mind and body temperature for the opera’s most famous scene in the notorious Wolf’s Glen—I broke it. Like the opera’s hero Max, who lets himself all-too-easily be convinced that he needs a magic bullet forged with the Prince of Darkness’s help so he can hit his target as is required by obscure Germanic custom and thereby get the girl, I can’t refuse a good deal, in this case on opera tickets. Who cares if they happen to be an invitation to the Devil’s latest rituals.
The Devil in question is the forty-eight-year-old Catalan director Bieito, praised by some as one of the great theatrical minds of his generation (Michael Billington of London’s Guardian has lauded him “as the modern theatre’s equivalent to Buñuel”) and loathed by others as the anti-Christ of high culture not to mention good taste.
The Comic Opera has invited many other necromancers to its sanctuary of desecration, but none more frequently in recent years than Bieito. His recent Freischütz marks his fifth production for this most experimental and consistently entertaining of Berlin’s three major opera houses. At the core of his approach seems to be the idea that the all-too-casual commerce with exoticism and violence transacted by the classics must be given a full audit. An honest accounting between present and past attitudes should—often literally—be laid bare on the stage. Hence the harmless harem imagined by Mozart for his Die Entfühurung aus dem Serail (Escape from the Seraglio), which I saw a few year ago here, is set in an Amsterdam-style red-light district with real prostitutes in their booths. The production culminated in a snuff scene and full-on bloodbath that would have impressed even Sam Peckinpah. There were boos of outrage in the audience, but also enthusiastic endorsement. Many were probably upset that Mozartean charm would never again consort so blithely with the sexual violence that always underpinned that opera, but had been conveniently ignored for more than two centuries.
Der Freischütz was Bieito’s father’s favorite piece of music and it was often on in the house, though he had no idea what it was about. The elder Bieito simply loved the tunes, and his son learned the piece from memory. In contrast to his father, Calixto has a clear notion of the work, and nostalgia for Catalan nights spinning some Weber LPs doesn’t figure in that conception. Rather the younger Bieito seems to start with the observation that posses of men with guns loaded with bloodlust are incapable of good. Men hunt beasts for pure fun because they themselves are beasts. Bieito dispenses with the opera’s opportunistic happy end as easily as the “good” Max shoots an eagle from the sky with the help of one of “evil” Kaspar’s magic bullets in the first act even though it is far beyond the range of his rifle. Bieito offers not the slightest hope that Max might be forgiven for trying to use a black-magic bullet guaranteed to find the target. It doesn’t matter that Max was lured to the dark side by Kaspar, who had himself once hoped for Agathe’s hand but, having been passed over, becomes bent on revenge.
Amidst the overture’s forebodings, brass hymns, blasts of thunder and bolts of lightning —a soundtrack to the birth of German Romanticism—Bieito sent a large and hairy pig on stage to snuffle among the leaves and roots. The gentle beast couldn’t have cared less about these symphonic extremes, brilliantly conjured by conductor Patrick Lange from the orchestra capable of the requisite precision to bring the score’s musical monsters to life. These outbursts were all the more troubling for coming after pious wind pronouncements on the sanctity of nature and goodness of mankind. The clear-cut that later filled the stage mirrored the destructive inclinations of these German villagers, dressed up like American militiamen and as ebullient as if they’d just come back from a Rick Santorum rally. The intense searchlights at the back of the stage gave this natural world the look of an open-air prison under the surveillance of unseen and unnamed powers; periodically these lights beamed out into the audience so as to implicate the watchers in the grim spectacle.
Pulled in by his invisible lead, the pig graciously made way for the opera’s first human actions—a mob in pursuit of a fox, here portrayed by a blood-smeared women in nothing more than a fur coat. Arriving just after the nonchalant departure of the real pig, her humanness was impossible to deny: she was a women in fur—perhaps a former Helmut Newton model abducted from her luxury log-cabin in the woods to be hunted down and slaughtered. Bieito played with the illusion, having one of the hunters cut her jacket from her as if it were her skin, even before the woman/fox’s death throes had subsided.
Unexpectedly, that opening dose of nudity was also the evening’s last. At the premiere, the lead role had been played by the aptly named tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner, who in the Wolf Glen’s scene had got mother naked and stayed in that state of nature for the rest of the opera. Muddy and bloody, he almost rapes a dead bride who, along with her bridegroom, had been kidnapped and then sacrificed by Kaspar in a pentagram of trouble lights; these outrages were the invention of Bieito. As for the magic bullet that gives the opera its name, Kaspar pulled it from the dead bride’s womb, then, just before the curtain fell on this satanic scene, Kaspar murdered the bridegroom.
After Bieito’s fracking in the Wolf’s Glen, the flairs of toxic gas will light that dark place for generations.
Wolfsteiner had the night off, probably glad to spend an evening clothed. The second-string Max was Dmitry Golovnin, a Russian tenor who came late to singing, but has a powerful voice. He gave vivid vocal expression to the distress in Max’s predicament, caught as he is between barbaric custom, manly pride, and love for his hometown sweetheart. He quivered and quaked, but refused to get naked. After the first few performances, Bieito had apparently flown off to his next demolition job, so that by the time the second week rolled around, he was not on hand to demand that the Russian get rid of his underwear, too. So encompassing is Bieito’s vision that even a recalcitrant tenor’s loincloth can sap the animalistic intensity of the staging: in his depraved and insane state of mind, this Max could not possibly retain any modesty whatsoever. There is no confusing this Freischütz with a Calvin Klein ad.
The devil-worshipping Kaspar blows his brains out in front of the hunting club reassembled to see if Max can hit the target at last. A hermit, sung with resounding authority by Alexey Tihomirov, appears out of nowhere to explain away Max’s dalliance with the devil, but his pleas fall on ears deaf from too much shooting. The hunters have a good time gunning down the hermit after his pious oration. Agathe—sung by Betinna Jensen with a wide vibrato that imbued her character with an old-fashioned, if not always thoroughly pleasing charm—is hit by the bullet from Max’s gun which had been meant to prove, with the devil’s illicit help, his bride-winning marksmanship. That bullet had been cursed by Kaspar so that it would indeed kill Agathe, but instead is made to hit him in the opera’s original scenario. In the Bieito version there was no way out: Max has to kill the love of his life, even if unintentionally. He gets the girl, but only after shooting her to death.
As in his Entführung, Bieito has wrestled with the violent implications of another classic and dragged it kicking and screaming to extreme ground. The piece was long overdue for such an execution.
In the second balcony not far from where I was sitting, an enthusiast opera-goer booed vigorously as the Hermit went down in a hail of bullets and Agathe expired beneath her mad Max. At the bows, the booer sent a chorus of bravos down on Golovnin and the real musical and theatrical star of the show, the stalwart Jens Larsen, who has for many years filled the house with his booming and expressive bass voice, and gamely thrown himself into, and bared himself for, so many of the Comic Opera’s dark rituals.
After such butchery, who could blame the pig for not returning for his curtain call?