October 10, 2008 / 1:31 PM / in 9 years

Scary Weber starts Devil's Trilogy at Geneva opera

GENEVA (Reuters Life!) - Geneva's Grand Theater has kicked off an ambitious trilogy featuring diabolic themes in opera with a scary new production of Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischuetz.

Over the next month Geneva will premiere new productions of Hector Berlioz's Damnation of Faust and Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann to create the "Devil's Trilogy."

The productions in the mini-opera festival are staged by Olivier Py, playwright and director of the prestigious Odeon theater in Paris.

The cycle could have been called the romantic trilogy or the fantastic trilogy, but those terms have been weakened, Py said.

"The Devil, however, has been devalued less," he told an audience discussion at Thursday night's premiere. "The Devil attracts people."

The supernatural makes frequent appearances in opera, where the combination of music, lighting and drama are well suited to conjuring up an atmosphere of foreboding.

But the trilogy also traces the way romantic composers dealt with evil.

TERRIFYING MUSIC

For Py, one of the challenges of a modern production is to recreate the shock and horror felt by the original audience for a work which today can seem tame or familiar to a jaded public.

He plays up the violence in Der Freischuetz, while writhing naked bodies, some sexy, some gross, evoke the horrors of Hell.

It's not about scandalizing the audience, Py said.

"My goal is always to understand the work, and to be faithful to the work," he said.

Far from being scandalized, the first-night audience for Freischuetz cheered Py repeatedly when he came on to take a bow at the end -- dressed in a flamboyant Devil's costume.

That contrasted with the oppressive blacks and grays of his sets and costumes for Freischuetz, which takes place mainly at night.

Sets on rollers slither across the stage menacingly, and Py makes extensive use of shadow for nightmare effects, which sometimes recall early German horror films like Nosferatu.

The three operas are linked by more than the Devil.

Der Freischuetz, first performed in Berlin in 1821, rapidly became a huge international success, but theatres outside Germany took a fast and loose approach to Weber's masterpiece.

In France the mysterious tale of supernatural forces vying for the fate of a young huntsman was transformed into a show on forest themes set in England called Robin Hood.

Berlioz was horrified at this travesty, and created a more authentic version.

Freischuetz, which tells of an attempt to ensnare the young huntsman Max by a colleague who has sold his soul to the Devil, was the seminal Romantic German opera.

It had enormous influence on subsequent composers such as Richard Wagner, and the story and much of its music entered German folklore.

It conjures up a Romantic German world of forests, fairies and witches, and pious hermits.

But, set in the aftermath of the devastating Thirty Years' War, it also reflects the doubts buffeting Europe after the horrors of the Napoleonic wars, summed up in Max's desperate cry: "Is there no God?"

In this world, the Devil had his place, Py says.

"Freischuetz is the first time that music is frightening... It's the first time music terrified its listeners," he said.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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