Der Freischütz/The Huntsman. A great German romantic opera by Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber, composer of The Huntsman
Introduction to Der Freischütz
When the entire chorus sang a prayer of thanksgiving at the end of the Premiere of The Huntsman by Carl Maria von Weber on 18 June 1821, they were bringing to an end one of the first of the great German romantic operas and one, whose popularity with the opera growing public has endured to this day. The plot of The Huntsman, or Der Freischütz to give it its German title, was based on ancient German folktales and the music was in large measure, inspired by German folk music.
While Der Freischutz was panned by many of the critics after its first performance, the audience loved it and within a few years it had been given more than 50 performances throughout Europe. Its great success was probably due to the fashion for more romantic subjects in the early decades of the 19th century. This was the era of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe. It could be said that Weber's famous opera brought horror to the genre for almost the first time. There is a famous scene in the Wolf's Glen when the hero casts some magic, but malevolent, bullets to help win a shooting competition and the hand of his beloved, which is regarded as one of the greatest portrayals of creepiness in all classical music.
The plot of The Huntsman by Weber.
The opera tells the story of Max, a young forester, and his beloved Agathe. Agathe is the daughter of the head forester and if Max wins the shooting competition he will succeed to his boss's job and get to marry the daughter into the bargain. I'm glad they don't conduct job interviews like this nowadays. During the recession, there would be a lot of office blocks with the windows shot out.
Of course, in all good horror stories there has to be a baddie and that role is supplied in our opera by another forester called Caspar. This scumbag has sold his soul to the devil and is due to lose it very shortly. He hopes he can gain three more years grace by substituting Max for Satan instead. He tries to persuade Max to go with him to the Wolf's Glen and cast seven magic bullets to help him win the shooting contest. To illustrate the effectiveness of the magic bullets, Caspar hands Max a gun loaded with one. When Max shoots an eagle out of the sky, he is persuaded. Don't try this at home. Eagles are a protected species and you will get arrested. On the strength of this act of wanton wildlife destruction, our hero decides to accompany Caspar to the Wolf’s Glen and cast the bullets. He tells his lady love that he is going to bring her back a dead deer. I would have thought a diamond engagement ring might be more appropriate, but they obviously did things differently in those days.
Agathe is very worried about her boyfriend going to the notorious venue. She was given some comfort however, by a holy hermit who predicts that her wedding bouquet would save her from some danger that was threatening her.
In the Wolf’s Glen Caspar is joined by Samiel, the Black Huntsman. Max is having second thoughts because the spirit of his dead mother warns him against his foolish enterprise. The Huntsman conjures up a vision of Agathe drowning herself, in despair because she couldn't get married. This persuades Max and in a frenzy of demoniacal music and special effects he makes seven magic bullets.
I'm going to leave Max, Caspar, Samiel and the fragrant Agathe here. No doubt you are dying to find out how the opera ends.
Will Max win the contest?
Will he lose and forfeit his soul?
Will he get arrested for shooting the eagle and the deer?
Will his lady love marry him?
Will Caspar and Samiel live happily together after German opera’s first gay marriage? (This option has been put in to give the review a contemporary relevance).
Will Agathe break off the engagement and throw the deer at him, because diamonds are forever and a deer is just a messy dinner to prepare? Romantic gestures have evolved a little bit since then, thank Heaven.
The overture to Der Freischütz
If you really want to find out how the story finishes, go see the opera. It's full of great music and spectacle. To give you a taster of the delights you can expect, I'm including a video of the overture. The overture to Der Freischütz remains justifiably a great favourite in all concert halls.