Saturday, November 19, 2011

Der bleiche Mann ist ein Vampyr! Marschner rarity at Liederkranz

The opening night of the Liederkranz Foundation's production of Der Vampyr was a treat for me, and the rest of the audience seemed equally enthusiastic. I overheard a great many "I don't know this opera at all; do you know it?" conversations in the foyer, but there was also the gentleman who, at the interval, was comparing its chord structure to that of Der Freischütz, and noting how indebted the role of the vampire was to that of Don Pizarro. Der Vampyr, an 1828 work of Heinrich Marschner is, of course, interesting for its place in the development of nineteenth-century opera, but it's also dramatically and musically engaging on its own terms; no passion for its much-touted anticipation of Wagnerian leitmotivs is required. With limited theatrical resources, but considerable creativity in using them, the Liederkranz crafted a fine presentation of this seldom-performed opera.

The plot of Der Vampyr is based on an English short story, and follows a trajectory of high Schauerromantik. Exploration and explanation of the characters' emotions in romances and arias makes up a significant part of the score (although the most dramatic scenes are through-composed, moving away from the structure of alternating Sprechgesang, arioso singing, and chorus.) In contrast to the original material, and another opera based on it, Marschner's work (with libretto by his brother-in-law) ends not with madness and death, but with happiness for its young lovers, achieved through rejection of the ineffective patriarch's authority and the taboo of oath-taking. The triumphant moral is: ,,Wer der eig'nen Kraft vertraut, fest auf Gottes Hülfe baut, den kann Nichts erschüttern!"

At the interval, a lady descending the stairs in front of me pointed to a framed print of a Caspar David Friedrich landscape. "Don't the sets remind you of this?" she asked her husband. Thanks to clever use of moveable jagged columns, and vampires who actually materialized out of a rocky moor thanks to voluminous capes, they did. The Liederkranz production also added silent, danced roles for disciples of the titular vampire, a nice touch to make the high stakes of social and sexual disorder (gasp!) visible and ominous. Reduction of Marschner's sweeping orchestration to a piano accompaniment is a loss, of course, but music director Elizabeth Hastings led from the piano with admirable verve and sensitivity. The ensemble contributed fine, energetic singing throughout, (credit goes to Daniel Molkentin and Nils Neubert, who also sang, for coaching German diction.)  The drinking quartet in Act II was a genuinely funny interlude rather than a tiresome one, with admirable comic timing. Bass Cory Clines sang with verve as the ringleader of merriment Toms Blunt (and boldly slurred Hauptvergnügen.) Erika Person stopped the drinkers' fun, but not the audience's, with her challenging patter (and she avoided shrewish caricature.) Both of the vampire's victims sang so well that I wished they could live longer. Janthe gets killed off straightaway, but Jessica Sandidge sang her one scene with lovely, gleaming sound, and fine agility. As the ill-fated Emmy, Rachel Arky contributed not only expressive phrasing and fine sound, but a convincingly, subtly acted portrayal (alas, her sexual awakening by the vampire is, inevitably, her doom.) Her romance about the dangers of vampires was vividly sung.

It has frequently been observed that the dramatic inertia of Aubry, our Romantic hero, is more than counteracted by the beauty of his music. Adam Klein was committed to making the inner turmoil which causes Aubry's inaction visible, and he was convincingly tender with his would-be betrothed. His sound is bright and heroic, and Klein's tendency seems to be towards dramatic declamation, but he also found pleasing lyricism for "Wie ein schöner Frühlingsmorgen." Tami Swartz, as his beloved Malwina, had a nice timbre but tended to wander below the pitch. This improved as she warmed up, and she also gained in dramatic assurance over the course of the evening, contributing moving singing in the finale. Experienced bass-baritone Nathan Bahny sang the role of Ruthven (the vampire) with appropriately sneering menace, and increasing lyricism as he warmed up, with his Act II soliloquy for Aubry a highlight. He took being dispatched by divine judgment with an aptly ill grace.

Tickets for tonight's and tomorrow's performances of Der Vampyr are available by contacting the society or at the door.


  1. I've been considering downloading a recording of this for some time. I liked the short story when I read it, and the idea of an opera based on it interests me. And the vampires as descendants Don Pizarro? THAT is hilarious.

  2. Thank you so much for this very informative review. Wish I could see it!

  3. And then imagine my surprise and joy when I followed the aria link...thank you! *wink*

  4. @Christie There's a 2001 recording from Koeln which I like a lot. It's got loads of energy, and vocal highlights are the vampire of Franz Hawlata (a noted Pizarro) and the extremely passionate Aubry of Jonas Kaufmann. There's also a 1980 recording with Siegmund Nimsgern as the vampire; I haven't heard it, but I like--that is to say, heartily loathe in context!--his Pizarro. Check out this video in which Walter Berry, as Pizarro, kind of looks like a vampire:

    @ivisbohlen Immer sehr gerne! I would love to see more frequent performances of German Romantic opera; for now, Liederkranz is carrying the torch. The knowledgeable gentleman at the interval said that the last time the Met performed Der Freischütz was in the 1970s... sigh. Glad you enjoyed the tenor aria and the aria tenor. Fun fact: a cabaletta was written for it by a young Richard Wagner!

  5. Things you learn on OO!
    So it turns out, the original author of the story, Polidori, hung out with Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelly and Byron, and shared with them interest in Gothic fiction.

    Schauer-Romantik is the German Gothic-Romantic, I presume?

  6. Shelley, that is, uhm.

  7. @DTO Indeed! Sorry I didn't have time for more of the background; I presume you've already learned, then, that Polidori was a traveling companion of Byron's, and that the story was originally attributed to the latter? I couldn't think of a good English translation for Schauerromantik, and I'm not really up on shadings of literary periodization, I'm afraid! Your Gothic Romanticism would probably be best; more literal would be horror-romanticism, and most literal shiver-down-the-spine-Romanticism. :)

  8. I'm just going to check out Der Vampyr CDs from our music library--recorded in 1999! Should be good listening during my Thanksgiving travels. I saw Der Freischutz in London in the 1970s so there must have been several revivals then. Unfortunately I don't remember anything about it--just that I had a subscription (back in the day) and got tickets to as many as I could afford, sitting in the gods.

  9. Has anybody seen Dreyer's film Vampyr? Probably has nothing to do with this one. I managed to sit through the Nosferatu the other month, but barely.

  10. Full download of the 1951 Vienna performance here, with libretto:

    Download Dreyer Vampyr (and other Dreyer movies)

  11. @ivisbohlen Ah, library music collections--where would we be without them? I find the music of Der Freischuetz more compelling than the plot, but I could say the same thing about Trovatore, so I'm not sure what's keeping it from the stage. Here's the overture as conducted by Carlos Kleiber:

    @DTO It is on my list, but I haven't seen it yet. I think Dreyer's Joan of Arc film is stunning, so I'm looking forward to this. Also haven't seen Nosferatu, which, as a professed fan of German Expressionism, I probably shouldn't admit to.

    @Doundou Tchil Thanks so much for the information!


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