January 17, 2017

Der Freischütz and the origins of a "Star Wars" scene

Carl Maria von Weber had several goals in mind when crafting Der Freischütz, the opera currently in production at Virginia Opera. He wanted to create a new kind of music drama, one that would
A depiction of the Wolf's Glen scene.
  • reject the empty virtuosity of the Italian coloratura vocal style favored by Rossini and his bel canto acolytes -- the rapid runs, trills and other extremes of technique -- in favor of a melodic style more faithful to the text;
  • foster a sense of unity and community among the various Germanic regions and kingdoms as they struggled toward becoming the modern nation we know today;
  • employ a story glorifying traditional German pastimes of forestry and hunting;
  • increase the scope and role of both orchestra and chorus;
  • incorporate folk materials, whether authentic or simulated; and most important to this post,
  • introduce supernatural elements to the plot.
All these elements, taken together, add up to a significant achievement in opera history: the first truly Romantic opera ever written. Good job, Weber! One for the books.

Now, when I say "supernatural", I'm not talking the fun & games magic of Tamino's magic flute in Mozart's singspiel; we're talking SCARY HORROR-INDUCING TRAUMATIZING TERROR, I tell you.  Think Edgar Allan Poe! Think Stephen King! (Weber would've love The Shining.) Think Harry Potter!

And, really and truly, think Darth Vadar, Luke Skywalker, Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi. For real.

In my opinion, the central scene in Der Freischütz is the genesis of a corresponding scene in The Empire Strikes Back, otherwise known as Episode V in the nine-episode arc of the Star Wars franchise. The similarities are fundamental; the differences insignificant.

The two scenes I have in mind are the "Wolf's Glen" scene in Act 2 of Weber's opera versus the scene in Empire when Luke travels to the planet Dagobah to receive Jedi training from Yoda. Let's give a short synopsis of each to compare:

Der Freischütz
Max, unable to shoot accurately, reluctantly agrees to meet the evil Kaspar at midnight at the Wolf's Glen, where Caspar will show him how to make magic bullets that never miss their target. Once there, Max sees visions: he sees his dead mother warning him to leave; he sees his sweetheart Agathe plunging from a bridge into a void. As Kaspar casts each bullet, new and terrifying visions appear: a charging boar, ghostly hunters, a cataclysmic storm and finally, with the seventh bullet, the satanic demon Samiel. At his appearance, Max and Caspar faint.

The Empire Strikes Back
Luke is told to enter a cave that is strong with the Dark Side's power. Ignoring Yoda's counsel to leave his weapons, Luke enters the cavern armed. Once inside, he has a vision of himself angrily confronting Darth Vader and beheading him. However, the severed head's mask bursts apart and reveals Luke's face underneath; it is a warning that if Luke battles Vader with no emotional control, he will become Vader himself, seduced by the Dark Side.

Both scenes fall into the literary category of phantasmagoria, or the depiction of a sequence of real or imaginary images like those seen in a dream.

See, both Max and Luke are experiencing what we may call an Existential Crisis (more about that in a future post): they both feel incomplete somehow - unprepared to fulfill their individual destinies. Dagobah is equally forbidding and eerie as the Wolf's Glen. Like Luke, Max receives supernatural warnings. The various characters match up nicely:

MAX = LUKE. A hero who is still developing his heroic traits. Rifle = light saber.

CASPAR = YODA. Except that Caspar is "bad evil Yoda". Yoda is training Luke in the good side of The Force, whereas Caspar is training the unwitting Max in the dark side of The Force.

SAMIEL = DARTH VADAR. The sudden appearance of each is climactic, dramatic and unnerving. Each represents Evil Incarnate.

Actually, the Star Wars team returned to a scene of phantasmagoria in last year's addition to the franchise, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. A new character, a scavenger called Rey, is the latest to experience a "Wolf's Glen" scene. Here's that synopsis:

Rey hears the screaming of a young girl and finds herself wandering deeper into the castle to find the source. She descends to a sub-chamber that is filled with relics of the past. There she is called by the Force to Maz's curio box, an ancient Wroshyr wood chest. Inside, she finds the lightsaber that had previously belonged to Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke. Upon touching the lightsaber, she receives a series of visions. Suddenly, she finds herself in Cloud City where Luke battled Darth Vader. As quick as she saw that vision, it goes away, and she now sees Luke placing his metallic hand on top of R2-D2 near a fire, at a site presumed to be Luke's burning Jedi Temple. Next, she finds herself lying in the rain at night to see the Knights of Ren surrounded by slaughtered victims, fearing for her life as Ren notices her. Before he reaches her, she sees herself as a child on Jakku watching the departure of her parents, yelling out to them to come back, and being told to quiet herself from Unkar Plutt. Looking to the future, Rey then finds herself being chased by Kylo Ren in a snowy forest. Rey pulls herself out of the vision in terror.

A castle sub-chamber... an Evil Cave... the Wolf's Glen... they're all the same place: a hostile forbidding place to which we must go to confront our deepest fears and anxieties; the place we go to learn more about who we are and what we're about. The place where magic and evil hover.

It's clear that we are living in a Neo-Romantic period in America. The movies that make the most money have continued the legacy of Der Freischütz, bringing us the pleasurable trauma of fantastical beasts, monsters, magic, wizards and things that go bump in the night. 


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