While Mozart and Beethoven regularly get the period instrument treatment, it’s surprising how rarely it’s been applied to the colourful early-Romantic works of Carl Maria von Weber. Dubbed “The Freischütz Project”, Laurence Equilbey aims to put that right by exploring the impact of original forces on one of the 19th century’s most atmospheric of operas.

The Freischütz Project

Der Freischütz was hugely influential in its day, appreciated by forward-thinkers from Berlioz to Wagner, but also hugely popular with the general public who got genuine chills from the famous Wolf’s Glen scene. Equilbey drives a punchy reading of the score and does a fine job at drawing out the felicities and innovations in Weber’s orchestration, spooky woodwind and rasping natural horns being especially effective throughout. The disciplined yet flexible Insula orchestra is a real draw.

She’s well served too by a fine cast, though perhaps Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s ardent Max good do with a little more vocal beauty at the top end. The standouts are Johanni Van Oostrum’s noble Agathe, Vladimir Baykov’s never overdone but potent Kaspar and Christian Immler’s subtle, sonorous Hermit. Chiara Skerath’s Ännchen is characterful but less than ideally steady and lacks sufficient vocal contrast with Agathe (Equilbey’s justification for a more substantial voice in the role is ultimately unconvincing). The smaller roles are all well taken, and Equilbey’s Accentus Choir is luxury casting as the chorus.

The CD is supplemented with a DVD of the production filmed at the Theatre des Champs-Élysées from which the audio was taken, a neatly minimalist 2019 staging by French circus and magic company Cie 14:20. Clément Debaileul and Raphaël Navarro are masters of stage illusion as well as directors and their almost bare stage approach is strong on atmosphere and enhanced by clever use of lighting, holograms and video. Their visual trickery and symbolist slant proves more effective than many an attempt to go overboard with a ‘realistic’ approach to the ghoulies and ghosties. The cast and chorus all act well, and the dialogue is both engaging and convincingly done (often not the case).

There is, however, a rub. A well-prepared Freischütz lasts around two hours, yet here we have a CD of highlights lasting an hour and 20 minutes coupled with a DVD of highlights lasting an hour and a half. Several musical treats are missing entirely, such as Kaspar’s first song. The bonus 20-minute documentary on the DVD is interesting, but given that a complete Freischütz could fit on a single DVD it seems odd to lose whole scenes in order to accommodate it. And are collectors really interested in highlights CDs these days, let alone a highlights DVD? Surely a complete version of one or the other could have been made available (even perhaps as a bonus download in the case of the audio). As it stands, this release feels neither fish nor fowl, though as noted, it has many fine things going for it.

Listen on Apple Music.

Composer: Weber
Work: Der Freishütz
Performers: Stanislas de Barbeyrac t, Johanni Van Oostrum s, Chiara Skerath s, Vladimir Baykov bar, Insula orchestra, Accentus Choir/Laurence Equilbey
Label: Erato 9029510954 (CD & DVD)

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