Quick, what image springs to mind if I ask you to think about the ultimate German opera? Winged helmets? Slayed dragons? Heavyset blonds with harnessed bosoms and pigtails?
Well, you’re wrong. Curiously, the quintessential German opera doesn’t tick any of those boxes. And it’s not by Wagner. It’s Carl Maria Von Weber’s Der Freischütz, premiered in 1821 – more than 10 years before Wagner completed his first opera.
Der Freischütz was the last opera performed in Dresden’s Semper opera house during the Nazi regime – before the building was bombed to the ground. It was also the first opera staged in the makeshift theatre that the Dresdeners erected after the war. And when the opera house was properly rebuilt by the communist East-German regime, it opened with … that’s right.
So, Der Freischütz’s popularity bridges ideological divides. It’s considered a national treasure by all Germans from Aachen to Görlitz and from Flensburg to Oberstdorf. If they’re into opera, of course.
As creating a real German opera was one of his greatest ambitions, Weber would certainly be beaming with pride if he knew this. Or not?
Historical context: dreaming of a national German culture
An obsession with creating national styles was commonplace in the 19th and well into the 20th century. But none took it so seriously as the Germans. In fact, it was essential to the birth of the concept of classical music and its Germanic canon.
If you feel the need to affirm your identity, you’re often not happy with who you are. That was as true in the early decades of the 19th century as it is today. In Weber’s time, the quilt of miniature states that made up the German territory had been trampled numerous times. Contrary to ‘real’ countries like Great Britain and Russia, they were nothing more than a series of hors d’oeuvres for the ravenous armies of Napoleon.
It’s therefore no wonder that there were some who began to dream of a grand unification in order to be taken seriously on the European stage.
That dream was particularly popular with the middle classes. The nobility found a lucrative occupation in reigning all these miniature states. It was understandably less enthusiastic about the idea.
It was therefore still too soon to begin the political unification of Germany. But what about a cultural one? First, prove that all German people share the same character. Then it’s easier to plead that they belong under the same flag.
Unsurprisingly, it was Wagner who would push this nationalist opera to its extreme. The best illustration is Lohengrin. Henry the Fowler, the 10th Century Saxon king sings stuff like:
In a 10th-century context, that makes no sense. But for 19th-century audiences, the message couldn’t be clearer. And for post-mid-20th century audiences, it sounds downright menacing. Which is one of the reasons why Lohengrin won’t be crowned the ultimate German opera soon.
The protagonists of Der Freischütz are also in the presence of royalty: the Bohemian Prince Ottokar. He’s not particularly wise, just pompous. More importantly, he doesn’t have anything to say about a German empire.
In fact, the word ‘German’ isn’t mentioned once in the entire libretto. The story is wholly free of politics and might as well take place in a Game of Thrones-like fictional universe. Except for a few mentions of the thirty-years war, which is recently over when the narrative begins.
Prince Ottokar visits a small Bohemian village to preside over a shooting contest in honor of his revered ancestor Ottokar II, also known as the Iron and Gold king. The stakes are high, because the winner becomes the new head forester and marries the daughter of the current forester.
Yes, that does sound like a potentially uncomfortable arrangement. But thanks to a happy and typically operatic coincidence, Max (the town’s best shooter) and Agathe (the head forester Kuno’s daughter) are already madly in love.
You can see why they’re made for each other, being equally boring personalities. Max is whiny, insecure and displays an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Agathe is a drama queen and a religious nut. But the premise of the opera is that we root for their eternal love. And so we do.
Luckily, there are also a couple of exciting bad guys around: Kaspar, a war criminal, and Samiel, a servant of the devil who owns Kaspar’s soul. When Max hits an unlucky streak with his shooting, he seriously begins to doubt his chances at the contest. Kaspar helpfully steps in, persuading Max to use magic bullets that never miss their mark.
What Max doesn’t know, is that the seventh of these bullets belongs to Samiel who can aim it anywhere he wants. And what Samiel wants, is to kill Agathe. Why? Because he’s evil, that’s why. You know better than to ask for logic in an opera libretto.
Don’t worry, there’s also a wise old hermit who shows up just in time to save the day. He manages to deflect the seventh bullet to Kaspar. Kaspar dies, Samiel devours his soul, Max repents, Agathe and Max marry. The end.
Classic German jolliness
So what makes Der Freischütz the ultimate German opera – if it’s not the story? It’s not the music either. When Max and Agathe sing their typical primo uomo and prima donna arias, it’s in the style of Italian opera. And just like Beethoven before him, Weber uses mélodrame – a mix of spoken dialog and instrumental music – which he borrows from the French Grand Opéra. It’s the structural device behind the famously spooky wolf’s glen scene, where Max and Kaspar descend in a narrow forest valley at midnight to forge the magic bullets.
Some see this atmosphere of supernatural forces hiding in dark forests as typically German – linking the magic bullets to a certain magic ring, for example. My feeling is that Tolkien would like a word about that, not to mention 27,000,000 Scandinavians.
Maybe Der Freischütz is at its most German when it’s in folk mode. When hunters are blowing, peasants are drinking, bridesmaids are giggling. Take this hunters’ chorus for instance:
Gemütliche moments like those are sprinkled throughout Der Freischütz. They’re necessary to make the bombast of the main characters palatable. And together with the supernatural hocus-pocus, they’re no doubt primarily responsible for the opera’s enduring popularity – with Germans and non-Germans alike.
Weber realized that, and didn’t like it one bit. In his next opera Euryanthe, which he officially labeled a “big romantic opera”, he decided to improve his operatic concept by weeding out the fun stuff. The reaction of the public was a resounding ‘meh’. Weber wrote:
Apparently, there’s a big difference between the German opera the bourgeois elite had in mind and the opera actual Germans liked.
Unfortunately, it’s probably this beer-and-sausage Germanness that hurt Der Freischütz’s popularity in the second half of the 20th Century. Remember, when we were all way too sophisticated to enjoy simple stuff? And a bit suspicious about all things German, that too.
Luckily, those days are over. Der Freischütz has retaken its rightful place on our stages and in our record collections. Be sure to check out the version from René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester from 2022. I’m usually not a fan of opera recordings, but Jacobs’ way of treating them like radio plays diminishes the feeling that you’re missing out on two thirds of the operatic experience.
To achieve his goal, Jacobs takes a lot of liberties with the source material. Like adding sounds effects and modernizing the spoken lyrics. And he expands the role of Samiel. In Weber’s opera, this demonic creature has very little to say. In Jacobs’ version, he’s constantly adding his cynical commentary to the proceedings. Actor Max Urlacher does this so bone-chillingly well that I honestly can’t imagine listening to some pieces (like the wolf’s glen scene) anymore without his contribution.
Jacobs also restores the original concept of Der Freischütz by reinstating the opening scene that introduces the hermit – so the finale makes more sense. And by adding a choir – for which he borrows some music from a Schubert opera.
This might all be a bit much for you if you’re a purist. But I think it’s an appropriate presentation of an opera that’s a mish-mash of sometimes contradictory styles and ideas – just like the country it so perfectly embodies.