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S & H Opera Review

Weber/Berlioz Le Freyschütz, Orchestre de Paris, Salle Pleyel, February 14 and 16, 2001 (FC)

Did he do it for love or for money? There is evidence that Hector Berlioz made this 1841 French version of Carl Marie von Weber's 1821 Die Freischütz so that he could have the revision copyrighted under France's fledgling intellectual property laws. This means Berlioz would be paid and indeed he earned more from this edition than from his own compositions. His main contribution to the revision is the writing of recitatives for the opera to replace the out-of-fashion spoken dialogue as well as some minor musical adjustments to accommodate the difference in language.

But Berlioz also had a good ear and was one of his century's most perceptive writers on music. He certainly was aware this opera was considered by most composers to be one of the great masterpieces of the lyric stage and that it influenced the entire course of operatic history. Meyerbeer, later Wagner, and even Debussy were heavily influenced and acknowledged their debt. This opera is a cornerstone of the early German Romantic period and is full of original, engaging music but even today is rarely heard outside German opera houses.

As part of the season-long celebration of the music of Berlioz, leading up to the bicentennial of his birth in 2003, the Orchestre de Paris has programmed a wide range of the French master's works. His recitatives are positive additions to the opera. Composed with the style and melodies of the opera in mind, they add to the dramatic effect and the flow of the story. The uncommonly passionate and committed performance by the orchestra, just back from a successful tour in the United States, the powerhouse chorus under Arthur Oldham's leadership, and a collection of gifted singers made this evening one of the highlights of the Paris season.

The women carried away the honours last night with sublime performances by Michaela Kaune as Agathe and Annick Massis as Annette. Kaune's rendition of the famous Act II aria, "leise, leise" (but this evening "doucement, doucement") was as perfect a bit of singing as I have heard anywhere. Possessing a clear and supple voice, she adds the nuance and meaning to her singing that puts her at the top rank of sopranos today. French soprano Massis goes from triumph to triumph these days and the duets between the two were a treasure of the singing art.

The men also provided a strong showing. Leading off was a splendid and assured Gaspard sung with melting beauty by José Van Dam. When he is not in the extremes of his range, there is still no better baritone singing today. French Baritone Marc Barrard sang a forceful and detailed Kilian/Otokar and Jean-Philippe Courtis contributed handsomely in the role of Kouno. The role of Max was sung by German tenor Endrik Wottrich who was flown in with only 48 hours to learn the Berlioz recitatives (replacing Clifton Forbis, who had the flu). He has recorded this role with Harnoncourt but I found his voice lacking in warmth and ease.

Otherwise, it was a remarkable tribute to both Weber and Berlioz by the Music Director of Orchestre de Paris, Christoph Eschenbach, who has been at the helm since September 2000. His energetic leadership and musical acuity has this orchestra in top form. They are justifiably proud that they have been asked to return to Carnegie Hall in New York for a two-week "residence" in 2003 and 2005. The only orchestras to be accorded this honour before have been the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.

Frank Cadenhead

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach, tenor Endrick Wottrich,
and sopranos Annick Massis and Michaela Kaune.
Photo credit Thierry Boccon-Gobod


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