Opera Plots - Weber's Der Freischutz

Carl Maria von Weber was born in Eutin (in what is now northern Germany) on 18th November 1786 and died in London (during a visit) on 5th June 1826. He is best known today for a handful of operas, including Der Frieschutz and Oberon, his second clarinet concerto, which is one of the finest works in the clarinet repertoire, and the orchestral "Invitation to the Dance". However, he also wrote many songs, piano pieces, and other works. A contemporary of Beethoven and Schubert, he was one of the progenitors of the Romantic movement in European music.

The plots of great operas are often difficult to fathom, partly because opera composers are generally more interested in writing great music than telling a believable story. The plot is merely a peg on which to hang arias, duets and choruses. Opera plots are often absurd, with unlikely happenings, impossible coincidences and ridiculous characters right, left and centre. On the other hand, some operas are also great dramas. See what you think about this one.

Der Freischutz dates from 1821, when "Gothic" was all the rage. This was the age of Frankenstein and the sort of nonsense that Jane Austen satirised so brilliantly in "Northanger Abbey". Before the days of Stephen King and "Friday the 13th", this was the sort of thing that made the flesh creep.

Act 1 - The estate of Ottakar, Duke of Bohemia

A new head ranger must be chosen, because Kuno is ready to retire. The candidates are Kilian, a peasant, and Max, who is in love with Agnes, Kuno's daughter. The usual application and interviewing procedure has been set aside, and the winner will be chosen courtesy of a sharp-shooting contest. Max is disappointed to find that Kilian is proving to be the better shot.

Caspar, who has sold his soul to the Devil, as one does, promises Max that he can supply him with magic bullets that cannot possibly miss. Caspar invites Max to try his own gun, with which he brings down a high-flying eagle. Max is convinced, and agrees to buy seven magic bullets for the going rate, namely his soul. The deal will be struck in the Wolf's Glen at midnight.

Act 2, Scene 1 - Agnes's room

A bit of time-shifting goes on here, because this scene takes place at the same time as Max's meeting with Caspar. Agnes is very worried about the shooting contest, because she has met a hermit in the forest who has warned her that all is not well. She and her friend Anna are startled when a portrait falls off the wall at the same instant that Max tries Caspar's magic bullet. Max then arrives to tell her that he has an appointment at the Wolf's Glen

Scene 2 - The Wolf's Glen

Given all the build-up, this has to be worth waiting for--and it is! Caspar is in conversation with Zamiel, an evil spirit, and boasts that he has found a new soul-seller. Caspar hopes that this deal will be enough to save him from his own fate. When Max arrives, the bullets are cast one by one. However, what Max does not know is that, although six of the bullets will work as he wishes, the seventh is the Devil's bullet which will hit whatever target Zamiel desires.

Act 3, Scene 1 - Agnes's room

Agnes is preparing for her wedding with Max, but her sense of foreboding is reinforced when she finds that the florist has apparently made a terrible mistake and sent a funeral wreath instead of a bridal bouquet. Well, it's not the best of omens, is it? It's enough to give any girl a nasty turn. Fortunately, the hermit she met in the woods has not forgotten her, and has sent a proper bridal wreath. Keep an eye on it, as it could just come in handy later on.

Scene 2 - In the Duke's forest

The sharp-shooting contest in in progress, and Max is astonishing all the onlookers by his skill. He has fired six of his bullets and only has one left (the Devil's bullet, remember?). The Duke orders him to shoot at a dove that is flying overhead. Max does so, but Agnes, in her wedding finery, screams and falls to the ground. However, all is not lost, because she has only fainted and recovers quickly. Why is this so, you may well ask? Or you won't, because this is the world of opera and you haven't forgotten about the hermit's wreath, have you? Needless to say, the hermit's blessing is stronger than the power of the Devil and the bullet has been turned aside. Good job she remembered to bring it with her to the shooting match.

Zamiel, cheated of his prey, now seizes on Caspar and takes him off to Hell. The Duke learns the full story from Max, who confesses everything. His punishment is that he must wait a year for both the job and his bride. So the wedding's off. Personally, I feel sorry for young Kilian, who didn't cheat and doesn't get the job either (the assumption is that Kuno will carry on for another year). I reckon he's got a good case for an industrial tribunal, myself.

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John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great article. Weber is one of my all time favorite composers. Thank you for posting.

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