Magic bullets

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 24, 2008

Now here’s the answer to last week’s Puzzler. For his first two performances of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Levine did something unusual with the middle movements: he performed the Andante before the Scherzo on Friday and then reversed them on Saturday. After he’d heard the symphony both ways, he said, he would decide which order to use for the third performance on Tuesday. Ever since the ’60s, most conductors have adhered to Mahler’s original intention — to follow the relentless march of the first movement with the even nastier Scherzo, before “relaxing” into the pastoral Andante. That’s the way Levine used to play it. On Friday, hearing the Andante immediately after the first movement (the only way Mahler actually conducted the piece), I felt this was the better order. And though many people still don’t agree, that was the order Levine chose for his final concert.

The only time I’d ever seen Carl Maria von Weber’s masterpiece, Der Freischütz (“The Free-Shooter”), was the last time it was done in Boston: Sarah Caldwell’s 1984 staging, which wasn’t one of her major successes. It’s a hard opera to pull off in this country because it’s so connected to a German cultural tradition and getting the tone right is crucial. It’s a quasi folk opera, with special effects (ghosts, magic bullets), and a pact with the Devil the hero makes in order to win a shooting contest and marry his beloved. It’s one of the wonders of pre-Wagnerian German opera, along with another magic opera, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, to which it’s heavily indebted, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. The marvelous score includes Weber’s most famous overture, the heroine Agathe’s beautiful prayer aria (“Leise, leise”), and the bone-chilling Wolf’s Glen scene. I couldn’t wait for Opera Boston’s new production.

Stage director Sam Helfrich was not unaware of the challenge. His program note defends his choice of modern dress: he says he wanted to emphasize the underlying psychological implications of the story. But a more traditional approach might have better allowed us to appreciate the opera as metaphor while still maintaining its uncanny atmosphere. Helfrich’s updating merely literalized the psychological metaphors and drained the opera of its essential magic. The modernization finally seemed an excuse to avoid elaborate (and expensive?) scenic effects.

Hardly mysterious, the production looked ugly and cheap. Andrew Holland’s abstract yet cluttered set cramped the stage movement. We seemed to be in a suburban housing development in Bavaria, with TV antennas and drainpipes, a beer keg, plastic cups, and a blue rubber trash barrel. (When the housefronts were rotated to become Wolf’s Glen, the forest crags still had TV antennas sticking out of them.) These modern village maidens wriggled their rear ends against their boyfriends’ pelvises (a group lap dance, only standing up). When Agathe’s cousin Ännchen rehung a picture that had ominously fallen, guess what part of the male anatomy she suggested with her hammer. “Good taste,” a friend of mine used to say, “is timeless.” Max’s nightmares at Wolf’s Glen included getting beaten up by a village gang and having his pants pulled down by the village girls. At the end, a wall-ful of ancestral portraits — were some of them composers? — all got dumped in the trash. (Take that, ancestors!) It’s hard to remember another opera production whose stage images so consistently ignored — or fought — the music. (The extensive spoken dialogue was in German, so it was unfortunate that on opening night the supertitle projector exploded, leaving no translation to make clear to the audience how everything worked out.)

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