Every year, the Academy of Vocal Arts migrates from its homey Spruce Street headquarters to the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater to rehabilitate theatrically hobbled but musically brilliant works by major composers. My message in the past has been simple: "Be there."
Not so much this year, though the repertoire, Weber's Der Freischütz, is plenty substantial. Presenting it in a concert version initially seemed wise: The plot about a German hunter's pact with hellish forces for infallible silver bullets often plays badly in crucial supernatural scenes. But less, at least here, was less.
Some of the opera's imagery maintains a theatrical punch, like ancestor portraits that fall from the walls at significant moments, but seems silly when discussed and not seen. Vocal demands were beyond some of the cast, and with an under-rehearsed orchestra, less-than-great music seemed lesser.
Maybe you have to be German to externalize how the piece connects with the Teutonic psyche, which it has since its sensational premiere in 1821, also signifying the birth of German opera, Wagner's Ring cycle and all. Regularly heard in Philadelphia starting in 1825, the opera has all but disappeared in the last 50 years, according to local historian Frank Hamilton.
Though it echoes German singspiel and bel canto opera, the opera juxtaposed a Biedermeier sensibility with unresolvable existential turmoil. Those chords contain excruciating shards of glass, and though there's no picking them out, the lack of force on Tuesday may have left newcomers to the work wondering why Der Freischütz is ever revived.
Misgivings began with the overture. Conductor Christofer Macatsoris is a virtual oracle of Italian repertoire, but his deliberate tempos sapped Weber of elemental fury, and the AVA Opera Theatre Orchestra (a.k.a. the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia) played with little luster. The dated spoken dialogue was replaced with a narrator, which broke the piece's fragile spell.
As the cursed marksman Max, tenor Bryan Hymel displayed a healthy upper register and nice Joseph Calleja vibrato, but in his lower range, the voice all but falls off a cliff. Only Ben Wager, as the satanic agent Kaspar, had the vocal goods and histrionic fearlessness to show what Der Freischütz can be. That's not to take Jessica Julin's fine Agathe for granted: Her role is a bel-canto island in the piece, and she sang with maturity and presence that made you happily anticipate each note.