The free shot: Bruce Willis and friend in The Jackal. Image © 1997 Universal Studios.Today we're looking at that favorite opera of the National Rifle Association: Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. Premiered in 1821, Freischütz (the title doesn't translate well--"The Free Shooter" is close) was instrumental in the development of German opera in the early Romantic period.
Max is the hero of Der Freischütz, a young hunter determined to win a shooting contest and with it, the hand of his beloved Agathe. To do so, he gets help from Kaspar, an older hunter. Kaspar helps Max cast seven magic bullets, with help from the demon lord Samiel. But there's a catch. The first six bullets will hit whatever target Max wants. The seventh is under Samiel's control.
With its folk-tale plot and brilliant orchestral coloration, Der Freischütz was also a huge influence on the young Richard Wagner, who conducted the opera many times early in his career. (His first success in the genre, Der Fliegende Holländer, owes much to Weber.)
Although this opera uses old-fashioned spoken dialogue (like Mozart's Die Zauberflöte) the writing for low strings and especially woodwinds point the way forward. This is an important, neglected opera, due for a revival in these trigger-happy times.
With its hunting chorus, soaring arias, and stirring overture, Der Freischütz is well represented on disc, especially by experts in German repertory. In fact, given that the Met hasn't performed this operas since the early 1970s, a recording is the best way to currently experience this opera.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Eugen Jochum (DG, 1960)
Agathe: Irmgaard Seefried
Änchen: Rita Streich
Max: Richard Holm
Kaspar: Eberhard Wächter
This is a classic early recording of the opera under Jochum, a fine conductor of the old German school. Features the great (and underrecorded) Elisabeth Grümmer as Agathe. And it's a bargain at two discs for one.
Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Carlos Kleiber (DG, 1973)
Agathe: Gundula Janowitz
Änchen: Edith Mathis
Max: Peter Schreier
Kaspar: Theo Adam
This 1973 recording was Carlos Kleiber's first venture into opera on CD. The cast is pretty good, as is the recorded sound and the playing of the Dresden forces under their young conductor. The only caveat is the use of actors instead of singers to perform the work's German dialogue. It's kind of distracting.
Zurich Opera cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec, 1996)
Agathe: Luba Organosova
Änchen: Christine Schäfer
Max: Eric Wostricch
Kaspar: Matti Salminen
This live recording came amidst a flurry of releases from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the cellist-turned-conductor who made his name with historically informed Bach recordings in the 1970s. With the intimidating Matti Salminen as Kaspar.