Saturday, October 31, 2009

Operas that Go Bump in the Night

Considering it's Hallowe'en, perhaps a post about “Gothic Horror Opera” is in order (you can also read this post about Paganini's visit to Stravinsky's Tavern).

Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (since it's usually translated literally as “The Free Shooter” which doesn't make a lot of sense, or even “The Marksman,” I've often referred to it less literally as “The Magic Bullets,” since the plot revolves around the use of bullets directed by The Dark Side to win a prize, the hand of a young lady - well, actually, her whole body but the thing is the winner gets to marry her: given the ending, one could also call it "The Bullet's Surprise") is certainly the best known of these early Romantic operas – a tale of ghostly goings-on in the German woods on a dark and stormy night, especially with its famous Wolf's Glen Scene. I found a video with Achim Freyer's production which premiered in October, 1980 at the Wüttemberg Staatstheater in Stuttgart (now Staatsoper Stuttgart), conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with tenor Toni Krämer as Max the hero and baritone Wolfgang Probst as Kaspar the villain.

Its disembodied diminished chords were enough to make nice young ladies faint and the music relies on an old musical trick, the tritone – an unstable interval of a diminished fifth or augmented fourth (say, from C to F-sharp) which had long been forbidden in music because it represented “the Devil in Music!”

While I have no idea how a German opera house would've been able to represent some of the apparitions that occur with the casting of the “magic bullets” - from the wild crashing boar (so to speak) to the fiery wheels riding across the sky – perhaps this production will give you an idea. Today, with all our “modern technology,” this may seem campy and almost comical but I'm sure, in 1821, this “modern technology” was quite sufficient to scare the audience as much as any blood-soaked monster flick today. On the other hand, some of the characters in the opening scene, especially the jack rabbit and the guy in the "Scream" mask, may undermine some of the scene's original horror, its attempt at creating relevance through pop-culture references aside.
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As an encore, here is a pseudo-video of baritone Thomas Hampson singing Lord Ruthven's Aria Ha! Noch einen ganzen Tag (which I usually translate as Blood! given its line, "Blood, I must have blood!") with Fabio Luisi conducting the Munich Radio Orchestra – from a once famous “horror opera,” this one by the now almost completely forgotten Heinrich Marschner whose Der Vampyr (does this need translation?) was one of the Greatest Hits of 1829 and was a major influence on Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman which was first produced in 1843. You can read Der Vampyr's plot synopsis here.
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Marschner's opera was so successful, there were actually “Vampire Opera Spin-offs” cashing in on the whole craze. While the 1820s may not have been as roaring as the 1920s, it was an age of more than Beethoven's 9th Symphony and his late quartets. Ludwig Spohr, violinist and composer of nine (really, ten) symphonies, wrote a setting of the Faust story – not inspired by Goethe's – in 1816, the same year a young girl named Mary Wollestonecraft who later married the poet Shelley, spent an evening reading ghost stories with some friends, including Lord Byron and her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. As part of some friendly competition, she wrote a little story you might have heard of called “Frankenstein” (or at least the original version of it). John Polidori, Lord Byron's physician, wrote something he later turned into "The Vampyr," published without his permission in 1819, the first Vampire Story written in English. It became wildly popular and was often attributed to Byron himself. You can download Polidori's story for free at Project Gutenberg. It was this story that became the basis for Marschner's opera.

With an up-dated plot sung in English, Der Vampyr was broadcast by the BBC as The Vampyr: A Soap Opera with Ruthven's name changed to Ripley, believe it or not. Well, I always loved pointing out it was appropriately released on the Virgin Classics label...

Here is another aria from Marschner's Der Vampyr, “Wie ein schöner frühlingsmorgen,” sung by tenor Adam Kirkpatrick as the hero, Aubry, Lord Ruthven's friend who has sworn not to reveal his dirty little secret (that Ruthven is, in fact, a vampire) – that is, until Aubry learns his beloved Malwina is going to marry some mysterious Count who is, in reality, Ruthven. What to do, what to do... In the 2nd Act, Aubry threatens to reveal Ruthven's identity but the vampire warns him that to do so will turn him into a vampire as well: left alone (at least according to the stage directions in the libretto), Aubry sings this nostalgiac aria, longing for a beautiful spring morning, back before all this nasty vampire business was afoot. 
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Perhaps I should also write about a totally forgotten “Gothic Horror Opera” called Il Vampiro by Johann Nepomuck Sauerbraten (1797-1803) which received its modern premiere at the University of Connecticut in 1979 with Thomas Tomasiewicz as Don Dracolo, a personable young vampire, Mary Collier as Lola Poluzza, a sweet young thing, and Timothy Lang as Leccierello, her fairy godfather, and yours truly as the Orchestra.

Dr. Dick

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