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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 10

Der Vampyr: Operatic Intrigue

by Wah Keung Chan / July 1, 2011

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The 21st century fascination with vampires as played out in recent featured films, TV-series and novels is not new. During the summer of 1816, 18-year-old Mary Shelley and her lover and future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited the great Romantic poet, Lord Byron, at his Swiss country estate. The conversation turned to ghost stories, and Byron proposed a competition: that each pen their own supernatural tale.

Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein as a short story, which was expanded at Percy Shelley’s urgings into a full novel, published in 1818, causing a sensation. Byron created a fragment of a vampire story based on legends he heard while traveling in the Balkans. His personal physician, John Polidori, extended it into a book titled The Vampyre. Published in 1819, it became the prototype of vampire stories in English literature.

In 1821, Heinrich Ludwig Ritter wrote the German play, Der Vampir oder die Totenbraut, based on Polidori’s work. This inspired Wilhelm August Wohlbrück’s libretto for the opera Der Vampyr, by his brother-in-law, composer Heinrich Marschner. Premiered on March 29, 1828 in Leipzig and was an instant hit.

“It was the Phantom of the Opera and Notre Dame de Paris of its time,” said Alex Benjamin, artistic director of the Lanaudière Festival, which will be presenting the Canadian premiere of Der Vampyr this summer.

“Part of their success was due to the story, which transforms the character of the vampire from an obscure, folkloric and ghoulish creature to the aristocratic figure that lives undetected among his own kind,” said Benjamin. “This figure is also somewhat tragic, as Lord Ruthven, the vampire in question, has to sacrifice three virgin brides before the next day or he will die forever. Two of the three meet this tragic fate, but the third, Malwina, who has been promised as a bride to Ruthven, is saved by Edgar Aubry—a tenor, of course, as all romantic heroes should be.”

Benjamin has decided on a semi-stage presentation at Lanaudiere’s Amphitheatre, with the orchestra on stage “to fully convey the evocative power of the music. The staging will be done not only in front and in back of the orchestra, but also within it, creating something very original.” Although there won’t be any sets or real costumes, according to Opera de Montreal veteran stage director Alain Gauthier, there will be platforms to create volumes around the orchestra. Supertitles will be employed, while projections and lighting will be used to create the atmosphere of each scene. “I’ll try to make the relationships between the characters clear enough so the audience will understand who’s who,” said Gauthier. “We have a young and handsome vampire in baritone Phillip Addis, and that will surely add a touch of sensuality to his quest. There is, for sure, an erotic subtext to all vampire stories, and I hope we'll be able to show that with the acting.”

“This piece predates some of the clichés we've adopted from that period (capes, fangs, wooden stakes, etc.), and is more centered on a vile lust for blood,” said Addis. “Lord Ruthven (the vampire) is actually quite human in his methods of seduction and his insatiable desire to claim his victims. He represents the addict, who despite being tormented by his drive, must yield to it. He describes the living hell of killing loved ones, even one's children, to briefly satisfy one's thirst. He knows that when he does go to Hell, he will be the most reviled among all sinners. He isn't defiantly free-willed, like Don Giovanni; he's driven because he's accursed. Still, he has business to get down to, and he's like a Casanova in his ability to seduce a young bride on her wedding day (sound familiar?), another in a cave (‘Don't mind the bats, Dear’), while making himself available for an arranged marriage.”

Of heros and horror: the music
Benjamin finds the music of Der Vampyr colourful, full of surprising turns and an immense variety of styles. “There are elements of Mozart (Don Giovanni), Beethoven and Weber (Der Freischütz), and others that already point to Wagner,” said Benjamin. “There are some wonderful arias, great dramatic scenes and ensembles, and lively choruses.”

For Addis, the music supports the sense of a looming threat throughout the piece. “Even in the most festive scenes there tends to be a sinewy countermelody worming its way through until the fun is spoiled by the horror,” said Addis. “There's a healthy balance of tuneful clarity and sombre, dramatic forcefulness which is really exciting to sing. I enjoy singing roles that show torment and conflict. There's much more to explore dramatically and vocally in such roles, compared to roles that simply require pretty singing or a light bit of comedy. Marschner supports the vampire with such a range of musical expression, making it at times desperate and pathetic, while cunning and commanding, but always a bit sympathetic and intriguing, to the end.”

And at the end, Aubry who has been harbouring Ruthven’s secret from the beginning of the opera is released from his oath and reveals the vampire’s true identity, sending him directly to hell. “Beyond the horror story, there is also a very heroic and romantic love story,” said Gauthier.

Marschner’s Der Vampyr at Festival Lanaudière. July 30 at 8 p.m. Alain Gauthier, staging; Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor; Phillip Addis, Lord Ruthven; Frederic Antoun, Edgar Aubry; Marianne Fiset, Malwina; Nathalie Paulin, Janthe; Tracy Smith Bessette, Emmy.

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