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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Opera Review: A Shooting in the Bronx

The Bronx Opera mounts Der Freischütz.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kaspar (Michael Nansel) tempts Max (Michael Celentano) with magic bullets
and some sort of tipple in camping mugs in a scene from Der Freischütz.
Photo by John Bruno for the Bronx Opera Company.
Shots rang out Sunday afternoon on the campus of Lehman College, located next to the Jerome Avenue subway depot in the heart of the Bronx. The occasion though was entirely aboveboard: the last of four Bronx Opera performances of Weber's Der Freischütz. The 1821 opera by Carl Maria von Weber. Der Freischütz (the title translates to "The Free-Shooter") is a regular treat in German opera houses but a rarity in the United States. It is the most important German opera of the early 19th century, establishing what German opera was and could be and pointing the way toward the mid-century operatic revolution of Richard Wagner.

Der Freischütz (performed here in English) is brilliant in its own right, a fairy tale with lashings of Faust. Set in a bucolic forest, it is the story of Max (sung at Sunday's performance by tenor Michael Celentano) a young forester who is desperate to win a shooting contest and qualify for his job. This qualification will also allow him to marry Agathe (Hannah Spierman), his boss's daughter. Desperate, Max enlists the help of Kaspar (baritone Michael Nansel) who tempts him with the promise of seven "freikugel", or magic bullets. Six will go where the shooter aims. The seventh is the "free shot" of the title and is controlled by the Devil's will.

Max is not an easy or particularly grateful role. Aside from being a whinier protagonist than the young Luke Skywalker, he must cope with a punishing tessitura that sits firmly in the upper register of the voice. Mr. Celentano was admirable as this unlikeable fellow, but showed genuine character development over the course of the three acts. As Kaspar, Mr. Nansel had the better evening, making the black-hearted huntsman a two-faced fellow, jolly in appearane but devoted to his dark master Samiel. His short vengeance aria at the end of Act I brought the character's malicious nature to the forefront, and his scene in the Wolf's Glen was genuinely terrifying, even if the answering Voice of Samiel was pitched too loud for the amplification system.

Agathe does not show up until the second act. As Max's pious beloved, Hannah Spierman did what she could with this virtuous but underwritten character. She soared to brilliant heights with her big aria, the opera's best and most hummable melody. However, Agathe is more symbol of virtue than fully developed heroine: the libretto gives her little to do other than be threatened by Max's foolishness. Her maid Aanchen was sung with spinto fire by Halley Gilbert,  and she made much of her two comic showpieces.

Weber's score bursts on the ears in a brilliant display. Here, the Bronx Opera orchestra, playing in a high-tech pit that raised and lowered, used about half the forces required in the score. There was just one double bass, a pair of horns and only a few cellos and violins. Still, the brilliance of the music emerged, and the horns played with supple tone: all important in an opera that is about hunting. Conductor Michael Spierman showed a certain affection for this score that came out in every bar.  The orchestra were put the the sorest test in the famous Wolf's Glen scene, a tour de force where Max and Kaspar cast the super-bullets: this dark tone painting evokes the supernatural with minor-key winds and groaning strings.

It was in the staging Wolf's Glen that this production touched some nerves. The casting of the seven magic bullets was accompanied by the arrival of hooded, demonic figures (the choristers) and creepy offstage voices delivered by electronic effect. Starting with the third bullet, projected images appeared: the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign over the gates of Auschwitz, and images of hung victims of the Holocaust, tortured prisoners and the whole bloody history of 20th century Germany. Although Der Freischütz is set at an earlier time, these projections did a noble job of showing the unversal nature of evil, a chilling and relevant reminder aimed squarely at a 2018 audience.

The remainder of the evening was more conventional. Ordinary platforms and hanging ribbon curtains made effective projection surfaces. Walls of skulls symbolized the evil of Samiel and Kaspar, and the use of violet lighting made the Wolf's Glen appropriately creepy. Both the undersized orchestra and small chorus were used to excellent effect. Of early German romantic operas, Der Freischütz is a treasure, and the Bronx Opera's effort in bringing this work to a stage in New York deserved to be better rewarded with a bigger audience. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.