Treats trump tricks at Halloween. Our cherished auctumnal orgy dedicated to teaching our kiddies how to survive sugar shock often ignores the ear, that vital organ of fright and fantasy. There should be a soundtrack emanating from the house when the wee’uns arrive this Sunday evening in their costumes. This year I’m going with the chilling Wolf’s Glen scene from Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera, Der Freischütz.
I hope that this spooky music will synesthetically augment the trick-or-treaters’ Halloween reality, but I’ll be sure not to regale them with ghoulish tales of how I ventured through wet and dark Berlin a decade ago to that city’s Comic Opera for an infamous production of the work.
The Devil who presided over that macabre entertainment was the then forty-eight-year-old Catalan director Calixto Bieito, praised by some as one of the great theatrical minds of his generation (Michael Billington of London’s Guardian lauded him “as the modern theatre’s equivalent to Buñuel”) and loathed by others as an anti-Christ of high culture.
The Comic Opera has invited many other necromancers to its sanctuary of desecration, but none more frequently than Bieito. His Freischütz marked his fifth production for this most experimental and consistently entertaining of Berlin’s three major opera houses.
At the core of Bieito’s approach is 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) was set by Bieito for the Comic Opera 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 the likes of 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 underpins that opera, but instead had been conveniently ignored for more than two centuries.
Der Freischütz was the favorite piece of music of Bieito’s father and the opera was often on in the family house, though the boy had no idea of the story. The elder Bieito loved the tunes and that was enough. His son learned the piece from memory.
In contrast to his father, Calixto developed a clear notion of the work and not just the music. Nostalgia for Catalan nights spinning Weber LPs didn’t figure in that conception. The younger Bieito’s Berlin staging seemed to start from the compelling observation that men with guns loaded with bloodlust are incapable of good. Such men hunt beasts for fun because they themselves are beasts.
Bieito dispensed 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. At the opera’s crux moment 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 the fair maiden Agathe’s hand but, having been passed over, becomes bent on revenge.
Amidst the overture’s forebodings—the brass hymns, blasts of thunder and bolts of lightning mark 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 swirling up from the orchestra pit, 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 woodwind pronouncements on the sanctity of nature and goodness of mankind. The clearcut that later spread across the stage mirrored the destructive inclinations of these German villagers, dressed up like American militiamen as ebullient as if they’d just come back from successfully storming the U. S. Capitol.
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, this one 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 naked 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 by having one of the hunters skin the fox/woman’s fashionable pelt before her 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 (see the still above) and stayed in that state of nature for the duration of the opera. Muddied and bloodied, he almost raped a dead bride who, along with her bridegroom, had been kidnapped and then sacrificed by Kaspar in a pentagram of trouble lights. These and other outrages were Bieito’s inventions. As for the magic bullet that helps give 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, these flairs of toxic gas will light that dark place for generations—not to mention the memories of audience members like your Musical Patriot.
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 flew to another European city to start in on his next demolition job, so that by the time the second week rolled around, he was not on hand to demand that the Russian shed his underwear. So encompassing is Bieito’s vision that even a recalcitrant tenor’s loincloth can sap the animalistic intensity of the staging: in his insanely depraved state of mind, this Max could not possibly retain any modesty whatsoever. There was no confusing this Freischütz with a Calvin Klein ad.
Bieito had this devil-worshipping Kaspar blopw 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, appeared out of nowhere to explain away Max’s dalliance with the devil, but his pleas fell on ears deaf from too much shooting. The hunters had 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 dead.
As in his Entführung, Bieito has wrestled with the violent implications of another classic and dragged it kicking and screaming to extreme ground.
In the second balcony not far from where I was sitting, an enthusiastic opera-goer booed vociferously as the Hermit went down in a hail of bullets and Agathe expired beneath her mad Max. But for the bows that same booer sent a chorus of bravos down on Golovnin and the production’s Kaspar—the real musical and theatrical star of the show, the stalwart Jens Larsen, who for many filled this opera 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 so much butchery, who could blame the pig for not returning for his curtain call?