Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Weber - Hunter's Bride

Carl Maria von Weber - Hunter's Bride

A Film Opera by Jens Neubert

Jens Neubert, Daniel Harding, Simon Halsey, Michael König, Juliane Banse, Michael Volle, Regula Mühlemann, René Pape, Franz Grundheber, Benno Schollum, Olaf Bär

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Considering the amount of pitfalls and difficulties inherent in making an opera film as opposed to making a recording of a live theatrical performance, it's not surprising that there are very few good films of this kind around. Jens Neubert's film opera Hunter's Bride is therefore a pleasant surprise, the director bringing to the screen a work that is not as popular and well-known as Carmen, Tosca or La Bohème, but one that is nonetheless one of the most important works in German opera - Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. What's even better, and even more rare, is that it proves to be satisfying just as much as a film in its own right as it does as an opera.

There are several crucial elements that it is essential to get right in order for this to work on the screen. Firstly, it's essential that the work doesn't look stagey and theatrical. Despite the supernatural content of the opera's Gothic ghost story origins, Jens Neubert has a very clear focus that he successfully translates into a meaningful real-world context. Recognising that the nature and outlook of the characters in Der Freischütz is shaped and determined very much by what was happening in the world in Weber's own time, Neubert updates the opera from the just after the Thirty Years War (1648) to the time of the composition of the work itself close to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, setting it in Dresden in 1813.

Max and Kasper then are here both soldiers in the army of King Friedrich August I of Saxony just after Napoleon's defeat in Russia around the time of the break-up of his alliance with Austria and Saxony. The nature of the times lends a little more weight then to Max's desire to prove himself a master huntsman, to the importance of his being worthy of Agathe's love and to his bleak pronouncements that "Dark forces that gather round me. I am seized by despair. Does fate rule blind? Is there no God?". If the relationship to those sentiments and the war isn't clear enough, it's emphasised brilliantly in the Wolf's Gorge scene. Here, when Kasper summons Zamiel the Black Hunter to forge a "free bullet" that will ensure Max's victory in the hunting contest, the rocky gorge is filled with the bodies of dead soldiers, some of them dragged over to form a grim pentagram. The supernatural element consequently takes on a very real and sinister aspect.

The other vitally important element that will determine the success or otherwise of a filmed opera story is the performance of the cast. Jens Neubert, in his notes on the production, is very proud that the cast assembled here are world-class singers, and rightly so. With Michael König, Juliane Banse, Michael Volle, René Pape and fresh talent in Regula Mühlemann, it's an outstanding cast that is not only well-suited to this type of German Classical/Romantic-era opera, but they all have good screen presence and can act. It's a very different kind of acting skill that is required here where there is singing involved and it's not so easy to achieve either within the context of this work's supernatural elements. There are however no theatrical mannerisms here whatsoever, every performance pitched perfectly for the requirements of the camera close-up and in terms of the very real historical setting of the work.

That's not to say that the director neglects what are after all the essential Gothic qualities of the work, using special visual effects where necessary and mixing in sound effects. The use of natural sounds means that you don't always get a traditional performance where the emphasis is totally on the opera, but rather a balanced account between the music, the singing and the use of sound effects and natural sounds that would normally be considered intrusive. The director however seems to strike exactly the right balance, giving the score and singing centre stage, but not being afraid to let more natural sounds and dialogue take prominence when it is in service of the dramatic requirements of the story and the naturalistic setting of the film.  

By using the title The Hunter's Bride (in English for the international market), it might appear that the filmmakers are attempting to distance the film or mark it as distinct from the opera Der Freischütz, but this is not the case. The title is taken from Weber's intended title for the opera Die Jägersbraut, and Neubert hopes that reverting to the composer's original title will bring the emphasis of the work back to Agathe rather than shifting the focus, as it is traditionally held, from Max (Der Freischütz means The Marksman).  This is just one of the careful considerations that has gone into making sure that this is as fine and authentic an account of Weber's masterwork as the filmmakers are capable of presenting.  With this kind of cast, that's even more apparent and when combined with the setting in authentic Saxony locations, this Der Freischütz actually feels more at home on film than it does on the modern opera stage.

On Blu-ray, presenting the film at its aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the film looks marvellous in High Definition.  The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 track is also well worth mentioning, the director going to great length to create what he calls a kind of "3-D" presence that incorporates and balances the music and the natural sound effects.  A PCM stereo option is also available.  The audio is of course necessarily studio recorded and then lip-synced for filming, but this works very well, and the performance is superb.  There are numerous extra features, including a 'Making Of' that is almost an hour long, a full-length Director's Commentary, Interviews and a Synopsis.  Further information on the production and a Q&A with the director is also printed on the booklet attached to the inside cover of the digipak case.  Subtitles are provided in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.  These can only be selected from the pop-up menu when the film is playing, or from the BD player's remote control.