What happens when you combine Little Shop of Horrors and German romantic opera? Something like the Komische Oper’s production of Der Vampyr, maybe, an unusual concoction of Grand Guignol and postmodern metatheater. Granted, this might not be quite what one would expect from Marschner, a German Romantic active a little after Weber. (Today Marschner is today probably best known for the prominent appearance of his Hans Heiling in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus.) But hey, why not?
Marschner, Der Vampyr, Komische Oper Berlin, July 5, 2016. Text edited by Antú Romero Nunes and Ulrich Lenz with new music by Johannes Hofmann. Production directed by Antú Romero Nunes with sets by Matthias Koch, costumes by Annabelle Witt, lights by Diego Leetz. Conducted by Antony Hermus with Heiko Trinsinger (Lord Ruthven), Jens Larsen (Sir Humphrey)), Nicole Chevalier (Malwina), Zoltán Nyári (Edgar Aubry), Ivan Tursic (George Dibdin), Maria Fiselier (Emmy)
Marschner trades in the kind of uncanny sounds of tremolos and diminished seventh chords you might know from Weber’s Freischütz. The Dracula-like plot is pretty bloody to start with, but since creepy music and ideas of creepiness have changed rather a lot since the 1840s, it would be easy for this to be hokey. This production both resists and embraces the hokeyness, and the balance is a little tricky.
The score is radically shortened to an intermission-less 90 minutes, losing almost all of the spoken dialogue (the new version is by Nunes and Ulrich Lenz) and linking the greatest hits of Marschner’s music with new ghostly cluster-y horror music by Johannes Hofmann. You get a taste of Marschner’s score, but it doesn’t really have any of the structure or dramaturgy of Marschner’s original. Reviving this repertory is not easy—even teaching Weber’s Der Freischütz it is tricky to convey this music’s terror and attraction, and the librettos are, shall we say, a challenge—but revival is not something this production is trying to do (it is identified as “music theater after Marschner”).
It starts off 19th-century style: a magician-looking figure seems to be a master of ceremonies (this is actually Lord Aubry, the nominal hero), but things really start when the pale, shirtless, Tolkien- troll-looking vampire plucks a lady out of the audience and rips her face off. The exact reasons why Lord Ruthven the Vampire has to kill three virgins before midnight and how tenor Aubry got entangled in all of this is something that I sort of missed. I was possibly distracted by the cannibalistic chorus. Or maybe this because the dialogue is, as I said, almost nonexistent. But anyway, we aren’t here for logic.
About that chorus: they seem to show much more interest in eating brains than they do in sucking blood. This makes them, as we all know, zombies, not vampires. I’m going to write an angry letter about Werktreue to the Komische Oper dramaturgy department.
After this horror opening, we somewhat unexpectedly move into a postmodern space with the entrance of Aubry’s girlfriend Malwina. The set gives us the inevitable mirror and Annabelle Witt’s set gives us a reflection of the Komische Oper’s proscenium arches. Malwina then goes through her rather formulaic “nature, love, la la la” scene in eminently self-conscious fashion. The zombie-tending chorus is, now, dressed to go to the opera. The point is not very subtle, particularly combined with the victims plucked from the audience: the vampires (and zombies!) are everywhere among us!
Things get back to horror with the opera’s most well-known music. Another purported audience member pops up to sing a dire warning about that pale man being a vampire. This is Emmy and her scene is an obvious precursor to Senta’s Ballad in Der fliegende Holländer. Its stark, dramatic tone makes Emmy a more substantial character than you would expect of a peasant girl (as the original libretto has her), but this also doesn’t stop Ruthven the Vampire from killing her shortly thereafter.
The original ending is described in Wikipedia as “general rejoicing” in Malwina’s salvation (the clock runs out on Ruthven before he makes her Virgin No. 3) and her and Aubry’s union. This would be melodrama’s essential moment of moral clarity: virtue is recognized and evil condemned. This production cheekily stops that clarity in its tracks, revealing that something went wrong along the way and Aubry has, in fact, become a vampire (he comes perilously close to revealing Ruthven’s status and thus becoming the undead at many points) and he finishes up by taking a big bite out of Malwina’s neck. It’s a fitting punch line to this quick-moving evening—in a more ambitious take it would probably feel cheap, but here’s it’s just right.
Marschner’s music recedes to the background. It’s enjoyable enough if not particularly memorable (Emmy’s warning is by far the best part of the score). Antony Hermus conducted with appropriately vivid and violent contrast, and the orchestra actually sounded better in this score than they did in some other recent performances. As Aubry, Zoltán Nyári was rather flamboyant if often strident. As Lord Ruthven the Vampire, Heiko Trinsinger sounded imposing enough, though usually more concentrated on stage business, as was Jens Larsen’s somewhat dry-sounding bass as Sir Humphrey, Malwina’s father. The women were altogether better: Nicole Chevalier was again excellent, both very funny in the parodic sections and singing cleanly and acrobatically in this largely coloratura role. Maria Fiselier as Emmy (who I just heard as Masha, the maid, in The Queen of Spades!) started off tentatively, but her big, freely produced, airy mezzo is an interesting sound that sounds like it could develop into something really interesting.
A Marschner rehabilitation this is not, but it’s amusing on its own rather slight terms. And how often do you see a postmodern horror opera? (Kind of hilariously, this performance made seemingly all the American and UK musicologists in Berlin converge upon the Komische Oper. Nothing like a rarity to bring out the academics!)
Photos copyright Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de