The first indication that this West Bay Opera production is going to be a little bolder, a little darker and maybe even a little funnier comes in the opening moments when some super-cheesy 1950s werewolf movie is projected onto the stage.
Two vaguely British types discuss the deep, almost Freudian nature of lycanthropy — how our civilized humanity barely contains the beast within and all that hairy, howly jazz. The curtain rises and director Yuval Sharon takes us into what is supposed to be the American heartland of the 1950s.
But before we head into town, we need to cavort with the beasts in the form of choreographer Yannis Adoniou's Kunst-Stoff quintet (Patrick Ferreri, Marina Fukushima, Daniel Howerton, Chin-chin Hsu and John Mercke). There's aggression, humor and grace in the movement as Carl Maria von Weber's overture sets a mood that is equal parts serious and playful, folky and grandly operatic.
In the stylized set by Jean-Francois Revon, small-town America is represented by rows and rows of gray wooden fencing, with the townsfolk popping up from behind the fence, often with comic animal masks on, making them look something like demonic Muppets. Sharon's direction and Revon's design are clearly out to shake up this German classic, which is apparently the most beloved opera in Germany this side of "The Magic Flute," and their attempts work well in the first two acts.
Somewhere between a folktale and a horror movie with more than a little Sunday sermonizing thrown in, "Der Freischutz," often translated as "The Freeshooter" or "The Marksman," packs in the plot between grand choral numbers and beguiling arias.
Max (Ben Bongers) just wants to marry the devout and beautiful Agathe (Paula Goodman Wilder), but his archaic town abides by traditions that prevent the lovebirds from getting together until Max proves his prowess with a gun. If he can't hit the target at the impending shooting match, Prince Ottokar (David Hodgson) must deny the betrothal.
And wouldn't you know Max is in a shooting slump? Sensing weakness, Max's brooding buddy Kaspar offers to make Max a deal involving magic, can't-miss bullets. Kaspar, you see, has apparently been moonlighting in Goethe's "Faust." He has made a deal with the devil (here called Samiel and played by Gregory Stapp) that is about to come due. Kaspar figures he can pull a fast one and trade his soul for Max's.
As Max gets sucked into Kaspar's diabolical plan, director Sharon wants to show us how dealing with the dark side can unleash the hounds of Hades within the human soul. That's an interesting premise, and Friedrich Kind's libretto certainly supports that sort of exploration.
At the end of Act 2, when Kaspar seriously stirs the supernatural fires, the stage erupts in a frenzy of delicious darkness. At the conductor's podium, Jose Luis Moscovich (West Bay Opera's general director) whips his sensational 24-piece orchestra into a tornado of sound as von Weber's music marries Wagnerian bombast with the pseudo-Wagnerian lilt of 1930s film scores by the likes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The dancers return looking like mountain-man zombies, and Robert Anderson's lights conjure shadows and spirits aplenty. In other words, it's a whole lot of fun.
In Act 3, after a pre-wedding scene that feels like it could have been lifted from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," the finale presents us with impending doom and plot twists galore. But Sharon's staging loses its oomph. The townsfolk, out from behind the fence and without their masks, just stand around a little pen that looks like a meager miniature golf course.
There's one whiz-bang bit of stage magic that brings to mind "The Wizard of Oz" by way of "Jesus Christ Superstar," but the impact is lessened because the dramatic momentum has already stalled.
Still, the robust performances deliver the kind of hammy acting mixed with the knowing comic slant the production requires.
As Max, Bongers (who was suffering from a cold at last Friday's opening-night performance) is especially effective building up to his fateful deal with the devil's disciple. Once Max becomes more bestial, Bongers bites at the air and hunches his shoulders, looking less like a werewolf than a character from "Young Frankenstein."
Wilder's Agathe has some utterly lovely moments, most notably in her Act 2 aria that is essentially a prayer to forestall her sense of foreboding. As Agathe's friend Annchen, Patrycja Poluchowicz is sassy sweet and shines in her Act 3 song that combines campfire ghost story with a bridesmaid's pep talk.
Sung in German, the production benefits from a new translation of the libretto by Moscovich and Lea Frey. The supertitles are mostly free from the arch, often silly translations that make people think opera is populated by buffoons.
"Der Freischütz" is such a rich, wonderfully wild story that any unintentional silliness could sink it. This production mostly gets it right — the fun, horror and piety swirl in good measure — and the overall sound is powerful and, you guessed it, howlingly good.
What: "Der Freischütz" by Carl Maria von Weber and Friedrich Kind, presented by West Bay Opera
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Feb. 28, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27, and at 2 and 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 28.
Cost: Tickets are $30-$55.
Info: Go to http://www.wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999.