Sacrificial Seduction: Marschner's 'The Vampire'

From the Teatro Comunale in Bologna

The Hit Single

In the first act, Lord Ruthven (baritone Detlef Roth) eagerly anticipates the blood of three young brides he has agreed to sacrifice, in the aria "Ha! Welche Lust!" — "Ha! What rapture!"

The B Side

When Aubry threatens to expose Ruthven in Act Two, Ruthven warns him that breaking his oath will cause Aubry to become a vampire himself. Left to contemplate this, Aubry (tenor John Osborn) sings the aria "Wie das grausen Bild ..." — "How this gruesome picture fills me with horror."

Detlef Roth as Lord Ruthven

Baritone Detlef Roth plays Lord Ruthven, the title character in Marschner's The Vampire, in Bologna. Rocco Casaluci hide caption

itoggle caption Rocco Casaluci

Vampire stories have been around for centuries, and new tales of the undead are still popular today. Consider HBO's recent series "True Blood," in which vampires are a grudgingly accepted part of modern society — they can even buy a synthetic blood product, so they can quench their unusual thirst without biting so many necks.

Still, there's not much question about the most famous vampire of them all: Dracula, from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. If that book alone didn't immortalize the Transylvanian count, there have since been scores of movies about him, ranging from the 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi to Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version of the story, with Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder.

But Stoker's notorious title character is hardly the first vampire to catch the public fancy, and it was one of Dracula's literary ancestors that inspired Heinrich Marschner's atmospheric, 1828 opera, Der VampyrThe Vampire.

There's a well-known story about a gloomy, summer night in 1816 when Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy all challenged each other to write spooky stories. The two men didn't have much luck, while Mary Shelley came up with one of the most famous horror stories ever — Frankenstein.

But the three writers weren't the only ones present that night. Byron was accompanied by his traveling physician, a man named John Polidori. Byron, it seems, wrote fragments of a story — and Polidori eventually finished it. He called it "The Vampyre," and it was an immediate hit when it was published in 1819, under Byron's name.

Eventually, Polidori was rightly credited as the story's author — and it went on to influence vampire literature for generations. Its title character is a debonair vampire named Lord Ruthven, who bears a distinct resemblance to Stoker's Dracula. Both characters are more than just straightforward, bloodthirsty fiends; they're seductive aristocrats, preying on the daughters of Europe's elite families. And Polidori's story of Lord Ruthven is also the basis of today's opera by Heinrich Marschner.

Marschner's The Vampire was first performed in 1828, and its music is reminiscent of a more famous composer of German romantic opera, Carl Maria von Weber. It also has a touch of chromaticism, which at times seems to hint, just a little, at the later works of Richard Wagner. Like many German operas of the time, The Vampire mixes a number of elements. Along with arias, duets and choruses, it incorporates brief passages of spoken dialogue and even some melodrama — spoken dialogue accompanied by atmospheric music.

On World of Opera, with host Lisa Simeone, The Vampire comes to us from one of Italy's many fine, regional opera companies, the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, in a production starring baritone Detlef Roth as Lord Ruthven.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of Marschner's 'The Vampire'

"The Vampire," from Bologna

Townspeople celebrate, unaware that there's a monster in their midst, in the Bologna production of The Vampire. Rocco Casaluci hide caption

itoggle caption Rocco Casaluci
Malwina's Wedding

Becoming a bride is risky business when there's a vampire lurking near the church's door. Rocco Casaluci hide caption

itoggle caption Rocco Casaluci

WHO'S WHO?

  • Detlef Roth ................ Lord Ruthven
  • John Osborn ........................ Aubry
  • Carmela Regio ................ Malwina
  • Donata D'Annunzio Lombardi .... Emmy
  • Harry Peeters .............. Davenaut
  • Marianna Cappellani ....... Janthe
  • Roberto Tagliavini ........... Berkley
  • Paolo Cauteruccio ............. Dibdin
  • Teatro Comunale Orchestra and Chorus
  • Roberto Abbado, conductor

Heinrich Marschner's two-act opera is set in the Scottish highlands, and the dramatic overture leads to an opening chorus that quickly establishes the opera's spooky atmosphere.

ACT ONE begins on the estate of a man named Berkley, near a cavern the locals know as Vampire's Cave. A chorus of spirits sings about newts, toads and black cats. Soon the Vampire Master appears along with Lord Ruthven, an ancient vampire who has asked for one more year on earth. The Vampire Master agrees, but with one condition: Before midnight on the next day, Ruthven must sacrifice three, innocent brides. Ruthven accepts the challenge, and sings a diabolical aria, lustfully describing the "sweet blood" he'll soon drink from "blushing breast," and "purple lips."

His first victim is Berkley's daughter, Janthe. She's fallen in love with Ruthven, and meets him in secret in the wee hours of the morning. During a passionate duet, he lures her into the nearby cave.

When Berkley and his men come looking for Janthe, they hear a scream. A handful of men go into the cavern and emerge dragging Ruthven with them. Berkley promptly runs Ruthven through with his sword, and the vampire collapses — apparently dying. Other men also go into the cave. They find Janthe dead, and covered with blood. Berkley and his men go off, carrying Janthe's corpse.

This leaves Ruthven alone in the moonlight, which begins to revive him, and we then meet Ruthven's friend, Sir Aubry. Aubry has heard rumors that Ruthven is actually a vampire, and what's going on now seems to confirm that. But years before, Ruthven saved Aubry's life, and Aubry still feels indebted to him. Ruthven persuades Aubry to help him up to the rocks above the cave, where the restorative moonlight can shine in his eyes. He then makes Aubry swear an oath that he'll tell no one what he has seen that night.

The scene changes to the castle of Lord Davenaut. Davenaut's daughter Malwina is waiting for Aubry, who is her secret lover. When he arrives, the two sing a duet. Malwina has just turned 18, and she and Aubry hope they can soon be married. But Davenaut himself appears, and has other plans. He has already arranged for Malwina's marriage to a true aristocrat — the Earl of Marsden. Malwina and Aubry plead their case, but it's no use. Davenaut says the marriage to Marsden is a done deal, with the wedding scheduled for later that very day.

Just then, Marsden himself appears, along with a chorus of hunters. When she sees him, Malwina is immediately frightened. She has good reason: The man calling himself the Earl of Marsden is actually Lord Ruthven himself. Aubry immediately recognizes him — but Ruthven reminds Aubry of his oath, and Aubry says nothing.

The act closes with a vivid ensemble scene. Aubry begs Davenaut to put Malwina's wedding off until the next day, but Davenaut refuses. Malwina is terrified by her husband-to-be, and Ruthven eagerly anticipates the blood of his next victim.

As ACT TWO begins, we hear a chorus of drinkers, celebrating the upcoming wedding. We also meet Emmy. She's a servant in the Davenaut castle, which is nearby, and she's engaged to marry George Dibdin, another Davenaut servant. Ruthven, naturally, also has his eyes on Emmy, and she sings prophetic song about the legendary "pale man," a vampire who seduces young maidens and drinks their blood.

When she finishes, Emmy is approached by Ruthven, still posing as Marsden, who goes into his own seduction routine. Emmy's fiance sees this, and when he takes Emmy aside, Aubry appears. He tells Ruthven that he's going to betray his oath, and reveal Ruthven's true identity.

In a long and intense scene, Ruthven tells Aubry that if he goes through with that threat , Aubry himself will become a vampire, losing his soul and surviving on the blood of his loved ones. Ruthven storms out, leaving Aubry alone — and terrified by the choice he has to make.

Ruthven then returns to Emmy and continues his seduction. They sing a tender duet as Ruthven leads her toward a grove of trees. As the two disappear into the woods, four drunks appear, with one of them pursued by his angry wife.

There is considerable banter, which comes to quick stop when a gunshot is heard from the trees and a frantic George Dibdin appears. He says that Emmy is dead, and that he has just shot the Earl of Marsden. What he still doesn't know is that Marsden is actually Ruthven, and a single gunshot is scarcely enough to do in a vampire.

The scene changes to the Davenaut Castle, where Malwina tells Aubry that there's no hope. Her father is determined to have her marry the Earl that very day. A chorus of visitors is heard, and Ruthven arrives — still passing as Marsden and ready for the wedding.

Malwina refuses to accept the marriage, and emotions erupt. Davenaut curses his daughter. Aubry begs Davenaut to put the wedding off until tomorrow, and Davenaut momentarily agrees. But Ruthven objects, knowing that to stay alive he must kill Malwina before midnight, and Davenaut orders the wedding to go ahead as planned.

But Aubry can't bear to see Malwina marry Ruthven. Breaking his oath, he steps forward and tells everyone that the man calling himself the Earl of Marsden is actually a monstrous vampire. At those words, Ruthven is struck by a bolt of lightning, and immediately consumed by flames.

The assembled crowd is astonished, and Davenaut realizes that he nearly sent his own daughter to a horrifying death. He appeals to Malwina, and she forgives him. Then Davenaut blesses her marriage to Aubry, as the opera ends.

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