Der Freishutz, by Carl Maria von Weber, has held the popularity it earned in Germany at its premiere in 1821, carrying forward the tunefulness of Mozart’s Magic Flute and inspiring Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. The Weber was performed in Australia across the nineteenth century, but seemingly not since. Its addition to the Opera Australia repertoire allows audiences to experience the full pleasure of a work enjoyed from highlights, such as the Huntsmen’s chorus.

The overture set the standard for this evening with the orchestra. Weber built the work on contrasts, from the playful to the sinister. Rather than display their extremes from the start, conductor Patrick Summers drew forth their essentials in stages to ensure the reserves needed for the wildest outbursts and tenderest supplication. The sole conflict between the score and the direction was in making the peasant dances galumph rather than bounce.

A singer who plays the villain is often applauded less than his performance warrants. So splendid was Jan-Hendrik Rootering as the lost soul, Caspar, that he swept aside all guilt by association. His bass is rich in all departments, terrifying in its powers and exhilarating in almost every triumphant phrase.

Keith Lewis was too unwell to sing the romantic lead, Max, while his understudy was also unavailable. This double indisposition saw Mr Allen mime his part while Jamie Allen sang from the pit and Christopher Dawes delivered the extensive spoken text from the wings. This unrehearsed proceeding soon settled down. Indeed, the effect of having the speaking part come not from Max added to the sense of diabolic possession. Although Summers managed the volume to allow Allen’s fineness to be heard, the necessity of placing him in the orchestra upset the vocal balances. Even without the stimulus from interacting with the other principals, Allen expressed the desperation of Max’s situation and rose to its depths such as when he fancies that his promised Agathe is drowning.

The other male characters were all performed to great effect. John Antoniou sang so well as the pushy peasant, Kilian, that he might have stepped up to the part of Max. Arend Baumann, the old head huntsman, was in firm form, turning his long speeches into music. Despite a silly costume even for a hermit, Donald Shanks commanded the presence to promise Max redemption in a voice sounding more sepulchral than ever. Warwick Fyfe rang clear as the vacillating prince just as Christopher Dawes chilled as the fiend.

Set against this phalanx of patriarchs are two innocents. As the daughter of the head forester and Max’s betrothed, Agathe is distraught from more than the blow she receives from the ancestral painting that falls on her head at the same instant as Max shoots down a golden eagle with a magic bullet. Margaret Medlyn supplied the fragility of this pure maid and the ferocity summoned by her dreams of disaster. She proved ravishingly plaintive in her two love-drenched solos.

As her young cousin, Annchen, Shu Cheen Yu provided all the insouciance and pertness appropriate to the foil for Agathe’s seriousness, her smaller voice soaring on cue.

German director Christine Mielitz pursued the links between nature-worship in the forest and the catastrophes that flowed from equating blood with soil in Hitler’s thirteen-year Reich. Goethe’s Faust established the attraction that supping with the devil held for German Romantics. Realising that aspect on stage requires adding nothing. Indeed, Mielitz has dispensed with the pantomime sound effects of hoots, horsewhips and yelping dogs in the Wolf’s Glen where magic bullets are cast. The social criticism is screwed tighter by adapting the broad humour and class conflict in the original. Mielitz is as inventive as she is intelligent. The cuckoo-clock choreography of the four bridesmaids is a comic treasure. The final fatal free-shot of the title brings on a disposition of bodies that leaves the audience in suspense over who has been killed.

For the sets, Dieter Richter drew on the sublime winter scenes depicted by Weber’s contemporary, Caspar David Friedrich, but also on the Expressionism from a hundred years later to depict a world which, in German, is called the un-home-like, inadequately translated as the uncanny or the grotesque. The upsidedownness of the piece’s emotional and moral dimensions was established by a huge chandelier jutting from the left-hand wall. The costumes included references to storm troopers. The lighting from Nick Schlieper confirmed the chiaroscuro, intensified the infernal and delivered the dramatics, echoing Kaspar’s aria “Triumph, Triumph! Triumph!”