When it comes to German romantic opera, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of Carl Maria von Weber.
“It’s the start of everything,” says Stephen Lawless, director of the Virginia Opera’s version of “Der Freishütz,” which is coming to town this weekend. “It’s the start of Schumann and Mendelsohn and Wagner. It’s the template for all three of them: very melodic, brilliantly orchestrated.”
“Der Freischütz” — called either “The Magic Marksman” or “The Freeshooter” in English — is the tale of Max, a man who makes a deal with the devil to win a shooting contest, thus securing the hand of Agathe, his girlfriend, in marriage. Though popular in its native country, the opera is steeped in German folklore and rarely performed outside of Germany and Austria. Its last performance at the Metropolitan Opera was 45 years ago.
To make “Der Freischütz” more relatable to American audiences but still fit the deeply religious, gun-toting society of the opera, Lawless has changed the setting.
“We have moved the piece from being set in Germany in the 17th century to it being set in America at the start of the 19th century,” Lawless says. “We set it in the period of Washington Irving, who was a contemporary of Weber.”
In the tale, a huntsman gets Max drunk and demonstrates magic bullets that will ensure his success in the shooting contest. To retrieve the bullets, Max must visit the haunted Wolf’s Glen at midnight. There, he meets with the huntsman, who provides seven magic bullets procured from the devil.
“It’s kind of a ghost story, really, about a man who has more ambition than ability,” Lawless says. “These productions of ‘Freischütz’ or ‘The Magic Marksman’ don’t come along too often, and I think if you want to see a really good-looking show that is brief — the running time is just over two hours with one interval — this is the thing for you. It’s a good start, and it’s in English.”
Examining struggles of good versus evil, love and death, and dreams versus reality, “Der Freischütz” was so popular when it premiered that it was quickly translated into French, Russian, English, Dutch, Hungarian and Polish.
“I consider it a classic German fairy tale, superstitious-type of story,” says tenor Corey Bix, who plays Max in the opera. “My character is a young huntsman. He’s in love with Agathe, and is really desperate to win her through the proper channels. He’s an honorable character who gets tricked into making a deal with the devil.”
To make this supernatural tale come alive, Weber created an intense and dramatic score that Lawless likens to “Mozart on acid.” In its time, the music for the satanic scene at Wolf’s Glen was so upsetting to audiences that the doctors treating them called it “Freischütz Fever” in German.
“I think it just jumps off the page,” Bix says of the music. “This opera is one of the cornerstones of opera.”
In its staging, Virginia Opera aims to match the supernatural elements of the score.
“The production is really interesting: the lighting designer, the costume designer are very creative,” Bix says. “Everything looks very darkly expressionist at times.”
With an eye toward attracting people who aren’t regular opera goers, Lawless compares “Der Freischütz” with opera’s American cousin.
“It comes across, I suspect, as a proto-musical with this crazy score,” Lawless says. “I’ve always thought we should call it, ‘One Bride for Seven Bullets.’” S
Virginia Opera’s “Der Freischütz” plays Feb. 17 and 19 at the Dominion Arts Center at 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.