The Marksman, Opera by Carl Maria von Weber
A pact with the devil to win a bride is the pretext for Carl Maria von Weber’s gothic opera, Der Freischütz (The Marksman). Astonishingly popular in its time, with its dark theme and chilling music, Der Freischütz broke the near-monopoly Italian bel canto had held in theatres across Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Its upcoming performances at the Wiener Staatsoper will show just why it was so successful.
Premiered on 18 June 1821 at the Schauspielhaus Berlin (today’s Konzerthaus Berlin), the story of Der Freischütz would have been immediately familiar to its first audience; the legend of a freeshooter who sells his soul to win a handful of bullets guaranteed to hit their target. In the opera, a young forester called Max unexpectedly loses a shooting contest. The next one will determine who wins the hand of his beloved Agathe. Caspar, supposedly a friend, has rigged the competition, part of a plan to strike his own bargain with Samiel, the devil of the piece: he hopes by offering Max’s soul up to Samiel as well as his own that he will win a little more time on earth.
Caspar convinces Max to do a deal with Samiel: six bullets will find their destination no matter where he aims his gun. But the recipient of the seventh will be Samiel’s choice. Before the shoot-off, Agathe, worried about Max, has a disturbing dream in which she is a dove, gunned down by her lover. When Max does indeed fire on a dove, both she and Caspar fall to the ground. But on whose life and soul has the devil staked his claim?
Celebrated as a true landmark of the Romantic era, von Weber drew a depth of sound from his orchestra that had not been heard in opera before, eerie and full of foreboding. Impassioned singing alternating with spoken dialogue also rack up the tension. Together, voices and instruments ensure that the drama in Der Freischütz, even two centuries later, is startlingly effective, no more so than in its highly atmospheric Wolf’s Glen scene where Max, Caspar and Samiel seal their diabolical deal.