Culture Magazine

Der Bleiche Mann Ist Ein Vampyr! Marschner Rarity at Liederkranz

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
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 beaut, 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.

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