Gun-Toting Spin On Weber Opera Has Wild Impact

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Rivals: Kasper (Derrell Acon), left, and Max (Ian Koziara) in Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz,’ transplanted from 17th-century Bohemia to modern-day Texas in a production by Heartbeat Opera. (Photos: Russ Rowland)
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK — Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Weber’s Der Freischütz are pioneering German operas with plot elements like evil spirits, magic spells, lovesick quests, rubes who might kill, and encounters with evil spirits, as well as spoken dialogue added to beautiful music. Now Heartbeat Opera  has unveiled an astonishing re-staged, re-orchestrated, re-upped version of the latter, wildly different and set in today’s gun-toting rural America.

This newly transformed work runs through Dec. 15 in Baruch Performing Arts Center’s black box theater, which has a steep rake, steel chairs, and seating on three sides of the stage. A program note warns, “Contains haze, strobe lights, loud gunshots (blanks), moments of darkness, and simulated violence.”

Ännchen (Jana McIntyre), up on the porch, sings a sweet duet with her cousin, Agathe (Summer Hassan).

Motley sets and props included a giant tree stump on one side of the stage (for fallen bodies and gyrating spirits), a center platform-cum-boisterous-barroom, and in the rear, the side of a ramshackle two-story house with upstairs and downstairs porches. In a brief preamble, Heartbeat’s co-directors, Ethan Heard and Louise Proske, spoke of “classical opera in an intimate setting, for a contemporary audience.” The audience 200 years ago was contemporary too, for its time, and was reportedly as startled as last week’s. Proske, who co-directed the production with Chloe Treat, is credited with the concept and adaptation.

The score was played not by an orchestra, but by a small ensemble in front of center stage, called the Band. Players were versatile and proficient (the famed horn passage was fine), though at times the sound was like a jaunty parody orchestra.  Daniel Schlosberg, who arranged the music and conducted from the keyboard, is a whiz on keyboards, accordion, and probably other instruments.  

The story opens with a spoiler — a gunshot and then blood spurting out of the bride’s wedding dress. (She’s on a platform near the back of the audience.) Max, (Ian Koziara), a free-shooting shmoe, has shot Agathe (Summer Hassan) with a bullet aimed at her by the devil. (Things got even worse in the original fairy tale, which Weber chose to improve on.)

In a rowdy bar scene, Max (Ian Koziara) is roughed up and has his head dunked in a bucket.

Flash back to the local bar: drinks, girls in short flirty dresses, lumbering guys in plaid shirts, rowdy merriment. They rough up the hapless Max, laughing. Kaspar (Derrell Acon), here a war veteran, has been fired from his job as deputy sheriff and wants Max to be similarly fired so that he can maybe have Max’s lower-level job. He succeeds in making the reluctant Max drink and provides him with seven magic bullets that will make him a hunting sensation. (Acon has a big, sweeping Sarastro bass agile enough to toss off a scale.)

On their wedding day, as Agathe waits for Max, who has a secret shooting appointment in Wolf Glen — the scariest part of the forest — she sings a lovely duet with her cousin Ännchen, each on a different porch level. Jana McIntyre, in high-heeled boots and tights as Ännchen, showed poise, musicianship, and a wiggly bottom. She was sweetly affectionate to Agathe, who needed as much confidence-building as Max did.

The production gathered tension by using technology. Spoken dialogue was in English, and lyrics, sung in German, were translated on several well-positioned screens. The translation, into current vernacular, included swear words and idioms like “Don’t freak out.” The dancing devil’s white body had a gleaming, modern red-lighted tongue.

Samiel, an evil spirit, is played by dancer Azumi O E in the Heartbeat adaptation of Weber’s classic.

Max is now a marksman, no longer the guy who couldn’t shoot straight, except that his final bullet is the devil’s to aim. Down goes poor Agathe. But at the end of the opera she gets up. (Weber didn’t want to leave her there.) Kaspar, agent of the devil, goes down instead while the evil spirit Samiel (Azumi O E) dances, and Max is banished by the town higher-ups.

A number of luscious arias could stand alone. “His eye sees all creatures with love” is only one of them. Bridesmaids, helping Agathe dress, sing something Gilbert and Sullivan had obviously heard when they wrote “Braid the raven hair” some 60 years later. The overture theme is heard in Agathe’s last aria and in the choral finale — a new concept at the time.

After Max shoots Agathe, she awakens, explaining that she swooned. But Kaspar is down, and the devil swoops around his death agonies. At the end, the hermit (Eric Delagrange), some kind of deus ex machina, is another commanding bass, with large-brimmed hat and gun.

This groundbreaking opera, whose lead singers in Heartbreak’s production alternate every other performance, is seldom heard. If we think we don’t need to hear Freischütz now, it’s because it’s been so thoroughly mined and built upon that we think we know it.

Der Freischütz continues at Heartbeat Opera through Dec. 15. For information and tickets, go here.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.