Major Operas | Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber | Early Romantic

The Free-shooter

The Faustian theme, with its connotations of the black arts, was not new to opera when Weber wrote Der Freischütz. Since 1796 there had already been eight operas based on the sixteenth-century legend as composers responded to one of the most seductive themes of the early Romantic era: a pact with the devil for personal gain or, in the influential drama by Goethe, for the chance of immortality.

Among these early Romantic operas, Weber’s achieved much greater impact than most, as well as far greater popularity. His treatment of the theme was imaginative and his melodies were inspired by well-known German folk songs. There were echoes of the Singspiel tradition that originated in the sixteenth century, and a skilful recreation in music of the mysteries and supernatural feel of the forest. In this, Der Freischütz was the embodiment of German Romanticism, familiar in its traditional musical forms, yet eerie in its occult atmosphere. However, Der Freischütz was not just a work for German consumption. It had universal and international appeal and was among the most popular and successful operas ever written. The libretto, by Friedrich Kind (1768–1843) was translated into no less than 25 languages.

Composed: 1817–21
Premiered: 1821, Berlin
Libretto by Friedrich Kind, after Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun

Act I

Max, a forest ranger, is in love with Agathe, daughter of the head ranger Kuno. Her father agrees to the match, on the condition that Max passes a test of marksmanship. Max’s shooting skills get worse as the day of the test draws near. A peasant, Kilian, beats him in a competition and the people mock him. Caspar, who also loves Agathe, offers to help Max win Prince Ottaker’s shooting competition the next day. He reveals that seven magic bullets can be cast, which will automatically reach the marksman’s intended target. Unbeknownst to Max, Caspar has sold his soul to the devil, represented by Samiel, the ‘Dark Huntsman’, and is due to forfeit his life. Caspar hopes that he can arrange for another human life to be sacrificed in his place. To prove to Max the power of the bullets, Caspar hands him a loaded rifle. Max, discharging it in into the air, manages to shoot an eagle flying high above. Impressed, Max agrees to accompany Caspar to Wolf’s Glen at midnight, in order to cast the magic bullets.

Act II

In her room, Agathe is feeling uneasy. She tells her relative Aennchen that she has encountered a hermit, who warned her of danger and gave her flowers to offer her protection. A picture of one of Agathe’s ancestors has also fallen from the wall, injuring her; she sees this as a bad omen; Aennchen tries to amuse her.

Agathe and Aennchen are horrified when Max arrives and tells them that he has shot a deer near Wolf’s Glen and is going to retrieve it. They plead with him not to go, telling him the glen is haunted,...

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