There’s something magical about attending the opening night of an opera. Whether you’re in the great opera houses of Paris or Vienna or Norfolk, there’s an energy in the air.
This weekend’s opening of the Virginia Opera’s The Magic Marksman (Der Freischutz) was no exception. Billed as a paranormal opera, rarely performed in the US, and performed in English instead of its original German, patrons were intrigued and eager for the performance. After the three hour show, I left with ambivalent feelings about some aspects of the opera, but having had a wonderful experience.
Half the fun of going to any opera is the fashion. Arriving early, I ordered a glass of wine and mingled in the lobby while watching women in stunning evening gowns and men in tailored suits arrive. I may have let out a little squeal of delight when I saw a few men wearing tuxedos! One thing is certain, when the people of Hampton Roads attend the opening night of an opera, they dress to impress. Dazzling jewelry, fur capes, satin gloves, dapper hats: just a few of the fashion choices I adored. But, if you’re not a fan of dressing up, never let that dissuade you from enjoying the opera. Every range on the fashion spectrum was present, from jeans to fur; the important thing is enjoying the opera.
I’ve always felt that no opera is complete without a delightfully convoluted plot. The Magic Marksman tells an eerie and suspenseful tale of a passionate romance, a supernatural shooting competition, and souls traded for magical bullets. Max needs to win a shooting competition in order to marry the woman he loves. Kasper reminds him of the story of the Devil and the Magic Bullets. Essentially, the devil will provide seven bullets for the price of a soul, but only six go where the marksman wishes, the seventh is under the control of the devil. Undeterred by that little detail, they go to the Wolf’s Glen to seek the help of Satan. Without spoiling the mysterious plot, when the devil remains in control of a final bullet, unfortunate and unpredictable things can happen.
The cast is absolutely flawless. Corey Bix, who plays Max, the the love driven marksman, possesses a great sense of drama and presence. He’s both powerful and vulnerable at once. However, it was Joseph Barron, as Kasper, who stole the show for me. Not only is his bass-baritone voice clear and resounding, he also had a magnetic presence as the mysterious friend with sinister advice about the devil. Interestingly, Jake Gardner, who plays both the devil and the hermit, has been with the Virginia Opera since its very first season in 1975! These two roles mark his 100th and 101st roles! There is not a weak link in the entire cast. They were all nothing short of perfection.
But, as much as I loved the cast, I had a few issues with the performance. I question the logic of performing an opera renowned in Europe for being the quintessential German Romantic opera — one so evocative of the style, the stark emotionality, the melancholy — and performing it in English. It detracts from the connection with the piece and its importance and context in the history of opera. The history, culture, and emotions are just so much stronger in its native language. I missed intuitively connecting through the music with my heart rather than just hearing it through the lyrics. I do appreciate that they took artistic license, moving the setting of the opera from Germany to America so the English made sense in the context of the story, though.
Another, minor issue, but major detractor, were the three long “pauses” during the opera. Normally, when sets need to be changed, they do so seamlessly. Perhaps the curtain will briefly come down while the orchestra continues playing, or maybe secondary characters perform a sleight of hand so that you’re entertained while the sets seem to effortlessly change. That did not happen here. The curtain came down, the supertitles which display the lyrics above the stage read “pause,” and everything went silent… well, you know, except for the bangs and clacks and noise of sets being moved. The audience grew restless each time, checked phones (tip: it’s 3 hours long; 1 hour 40 minutes until the intermission), talked, and essentially lost the feel of being immersed in the story.
But, that negativity aside, the eerie scene in the haunted forest was one of the best I’ve seen in any opera! The sense of fear and unease of a dark forest was captured perfectly. The suspense of wandering the woods to make a deal with the Satan was palpable. A beautiful job was done of capturing the dreamy melancholy and suspense through music and scenery. A spooky spirit chorus comes out in what might be the best costumes I’ve seen in any performance, and visions that appear to Max are poignant and dramatic. I’ll refrain from describing them in detail as not to ruin the effect.
The Magic Marksman is a mysterious and compelling story of a supernatural shooting competition, the devil, and the unimaginable lengths a man will go to for love. This marks the first time it has been staged in America in 45 years, when it was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience it locally. A few issues aside, I remain, as always, impressed by the Virginia Opera’s caliber and commitment to providing outstanding opera programs. It’s always a magic experience at the Harrison Opera House, and The Magic Marksman is no exception.
For more information on The Magic Marksman, which is playing in Norfolk, Richmond, and Fairfax, please click here.