in: Reviews

June 29, 2014

What Happened to Marschner’s Tale?

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Production still from OperaHub

Production still from OperaHub

On Friday I attended the next-to-last performance of Heinrich Marschner’s 1828 opera, The Vampire (Der Vampyr), as staged by the enterprising OperaHub in the Boston Center for the Arts’s Plaza Theater. I was full of curiosity because I had already seen a highly favorable review in the Boston Globe and later also read Liane Curtis’s very positive review in the Intelligencer, and because, as it happens, Marschner’s three most successful operas were the subject of the very first paper I wrote in graduate school in a course on romantic opera taught by Victor Fell Yellin at New York University in the fall of 1964. Since that time I have heard recordings of the opera and seen it in a filmed version on YouTube, though without having actually experienced it on the stage

When I saw it—and apparently through most of the run—the Plaza Theater was filled with happy operagoers, generally much younger than the patrons found at the Boston Lyric Opera and Odyssey Opera. No doubt part of the reason is that the tickets were free, and it is good to see that many people took advantage of the opportunity to sample (perhaps for the first time?) a type of musical entertainment that is ostensibly of little interest to most people who are not graying. But certainly not all of the members of the audience were new to opera: I ran into two old friends, longtime experienced singers, who were attending for the second time because they had enjoyed the show so much the first time around.

It is easy to see how that might be the case. The production, though clearly done on a shoestring, included almost all of the opera’s music (some repetitions were cut, but otherwise it appeared to complete), with the composer’s full romantic orchestra vintage 1820 reduced to just six instruments by Moshe Shulman. This alone must have been a massive undertaking, and the six players who carried the entire score did a superb job under the excellent direction of Lina Marcela Gonzalez. They included Eriel Huang, violin; Miri Kudo, oboe; Evie Wang, bass; Julia Dombek, horn; Emily Feeney, percussion, and especially Stephanie Mao, piano, whose part was essentially non-stop for the entire evening.

In addition the libretto was translated (or, better, adapted) into English by John J. King. It is, for the most part, clearly singable, though that’s not quite the same as saying that the words could always be heard clearly. Certainly enough came across that the plot was essentially clear, but in ensemble numbers, especially, the words were lost more often than one might desire. I’m not sure I understand why it was felt necessary to change all the locations of the opera’s scenes and all the names of the characters, though in practice that only confuses stodgy old musicologists like me who learned the names from the original German score.

The cast of thirteen singers (who played the roles of all the principal characters and also made up the chorus when required) were young and enthusiastic performers, of varying abilities as singers and actors, but for the most part they fit their roles well and they entered into the spirit of things with genuine enthusiasm. The title character, here called Collins, is the largest and most demanding role. Judging from the most dramatic passages of his part, I suspect that Marschner probably thought of this protagonist-villain as having a darker vocal quality, but Jacob Cooper carried the role well. Two of the three intended victims, Della (Tamara Ryan) and Muffy (Lindsay Conrad) had the most extensive and, to some degree, Italianate coloratura to perform, and both acquitted themselves very well. The first victim, Lucy (Megan Welker), evoked a simple charm, but her part ended early in Act I (though like the other singers, she became part of the chorus when not in character as a specific individual).

The producer and director Christie Lee Gibson was probably responsible for the informative projections that greeted the audience, to inform us about some of the history of vampire literature, before the overture. This turned out to be helpful in indicating some of the touchpoints of recent vampire dramas on television and in film, to which references were made in the course of the opera.

It is this point, however, that makes me raise the question that forms the title to this essay. It is extremely common today for operatic production to be “updated” in an attempt to make it more “current,” more “topical,” more “relevant.” I am rarely convinced that such updating is necessary or that it works to the benefit of the work in question. In the present instance, my reaction is particularly strong because it seems that Marschner’s opera, which he certainly intended to cause some shivers in his audience during the supernatural scenes, has been turned into a campy matter for laughter. Certainly those who attended the performance I saw found plenty to laugh at, and, indeed, rather quickly were put into a mood to decide that the entire opera was really a put-on.

There’s no real harm in that, I suppose, especially since it was clear from all the publicity and from the reviews that I read before attending myself that significant changes had been made to the original work. I did not, therefore, feel cheated in any way. The work has, of course, been in the public domain for at least a century, so they are legally free to deal with it in any way they like. Yet I feel a lingering sadness or discontent if only on the composer’s behalf. Ironically, his music was performed almost in full and almost completely straight, but with lyrics rewritten so as to change the ending of considerably. Is it really fair to call this “Marschner’s” Der Vampyr?

In any composition that is sung, the words that the composer has set play the most important role in determining the character of the music. If these words are changed drastically, how can they actually express what the composer had in mind? Of course, in any opera sung in translation the words change from what the composer set; but if one is simultaneously translating and rewriting the plot, the demands on the new words become almost too great to carry. Here, the new words often seemed to fit the music in general, yet often enough they came out as a kind of doggerel (and this in spite of translator’s criticism of Marschner’s own word-setting which, I think, did not reach the misfitting of some lines here.

Perhaps even more problematic, if there is any consideration of capturing the spirit of early German romantic opera, was the fact that almost everything was played for camp. Early on the vampire, Collins, is coached (in mime) by a witch (a very effective Heather Gallagher) in the opening scene to give a scary gesture of threatening claws rather than the limp-wristed way that was apparently natural to him. This got a substantial laugh, but it was sheer camp, designed to distance the viewer from any worry about “real” vampires.

Of course two centuries have passed since the physician John Polidori complete a fragment of a story started by Lord Byron and published it as The Vampyre (1819). It became the most influential source of modern vampire stories, including Marschner’s opera. The opera was one of a series of dramatic works that were sometimes said to represent a subcategory of romantic literature and music called Schauerromantik (“shuddering romanticism”), works designed to make the flesh creep. The aim, of course, was the same as modern horror films and Stephen King novels—to capture the attention of audiences that liked to be scared out of their wits—for a short time and entirely safely. Maybe we can’t feel that with “real” vampires any more.

But in order to make the OperaHub production more up-to-date and relevant, and—especially—to make the women characters agents of their own destiny rather than unwilling victims of the vampire, the last half of Act II was so totally rewritten as to have nothing to do with Marschner’s opera. In the original the vampire was promised one more year of an earthly existence if he brought three virgins to hell (as his victims) in the space of 24 hours. Of course, in the modern world, the idea that an unmarried woman would automatically be a virgin is hardly believable, though that was the essence of the plot in Marschner’s day. Thus by updating the opera, the producers have made it all but impossible to avoid camp.

In the bargain that the vampire makes with his demonic master, if he has not completed his task within 24 hours, he will immediately be taken straight to hell. In the original opera, there is a good deal of tension as midnight approaches. The vampire (in his guise as a Scottish lord) has been accepted as the husband-to-be of a woman who thought she was going to marry her own sweetheart (in this production, the lovers were called Della and Parker). In Marschner, “Parker” has learned the vampire’s secret, but is caught in an oath he made beforehand not to reveal anything he might learn about him. Now, if he breaks his oath in order to prevent the death of his sweetheart, he will himself become a vampire. (This detail was not especially clear in the production here.) But he manages to delay things until past the midnight hour, and just as the vampire is about to ruin his third victim, the clock strikes and he is immediately carried off forever, leaving the lovers to marry.

The big problem of the OperaHub production was to make the ending “feminist”—to have Muffy slay the vampire (with a sharpened stake) which we had earlier seen her practicing in a quite funny scene. But then, having saved herself, she runs into the arms of Della, who was believed to have been killed by the vampire, but having tricked the bloodsucker, has returned to the stage, leaving the two women together and their two fiancés to connect with women from the chorus—to no dramatic point whatever.

Though this surprise ending, again involving a considerable amount of camp, seems to have delighted most of the audience, it makes a complete mockery of the original libretto. Of course, if one maintains that vampires are pure camp now anyway, that is perhaps not a serious objection. But I would like to stick up for Marschner’s right to at least try to send shivers up your spine when you are afraid that the last bride will also yield to the vampire.

My colleague Liane Curtis argues that now it is time for OperaHub, or someone, to take the next step and rewrite the endings of Carmen and Madame Butterfly, and (one assumes) most of the operatic repertory. But if we are going to take such drastic steps, why not go whole-hog and rewrite the book of Genesis (so Adam is the one who is persuaded by the serpent to try the fruit of the Garden of Eden) or how about reworking the Iliad, so that there is no question of Achilles being taking, and then being forced to return, a woman he had accepted as the spoils of war, so he will not pout in his tent while the strong-greaved Achaeans suddenly start losing battles? Where does such reworking stop?

Of course our culture, and the world of opera in particular, has been filled to overflowing with works in which women have been mistreated and denied agency in their own circumstances. But the cure to that situation, surely, is to write new works with a more enlightened and modern point of view, not to make pieces that have a place in history, and a reasonably successful position at that, into matters entirely for laughter and dramatic inconsistency.

There are those (opera conductor Sara Jobin, the first woman to have conducted a mainstage production at the San Francisco Opera, is one) who are promoting the creation of strong new operas with strong female characters who (wonder of wonders) are alive at the final curtain. That is surely the way to deal with operatic mortality rather than “improving” older compositions in ways that deprive them of their own blood and sinews—lost not to a vampire, but to well-intentioned producers.

A corseted victim (OperaHub photo)

A corseted victim (OperaHUb photo)

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

4 Comments

  1. I did not see the production being written about, but I wholeheartedly agree with Steven Ledbetter’s general comments in the final three paragraphs. Operas live in a strange borderland between the time in which they were written and our own time (in which we see them performed). Attempting to shift the former into the latter can be a fascinating act of artistic temporal manipulation and is sometimes worth the effort. But if it’s to such a degree that the identity of the original work starts to dissolve, is that a service to modern audiences, or does it deprive them of a living window into the past? I join with the reviewer in the call for supporting contemporary works that reflect our own time…and that will feed producers 200 years from now the same food for thought.

    Comment by Tom Schnauber — June 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

  2. I saw this production a second time after reconciling myself to the plot re-writing and have since discussed the production with friends who also saw it. Two main issues (1) introducing new vampire “tropes” into Der Vampyr and why they are felt necessary, and (2) Feminist Issues. As for (2)I agree that Feminist issues are best dealt with in new works rather than reworking/warping old works to fit modern ideas–one can have a bad feeling of being preached to which is what church is for. In such there is a further risk that this warping can become hackneyed/cliche-ridden to the point one “tunes out”; the ART has “jumped the shark” with this sort of thing with frequent use of Redneck tropes.

    Which leaves us with issue #1. Artistic conventions regarding vampires now require garlic, stakes, etc., but the “moonlight revives vampires” trope got lost by the 20th century. Marschner and his brother-in-law his librettist were about making a successful production in 1828 rather than fulfilling the liberal Zeitgeist of 2014. So the issue more important than composer’s intent is “Did the production ‘work'”. Originally I wrote that this version had legs/”fangs” but now I’m more reserved. I will be forever grateful for the “Vital Fluids Gin Palace” idea for the coven location and the vampires’ “clouding minds to remove memories” bit which cleverly solved some story situations; but the feminist angles “a wife is not someone’s property” didn’t really fit the dramatic movement.

    What finally saved this Der Vampyr version was that all the musical climaxes were kept so that the music drove the story enough that one allowed Rational Thought to lapse. One of the noteworthy features of the original is its clever alternation of the extremes of ecstasy and despair from one number to the next; the drinking song & chorus serve as comic relief–which is immediately shattered by yet another vampire attack; the mach-complained of sudden stretches of “campiness” can be thought of as “comic relief”.

    For the future of this version more needs reworked; restore the blood-curdling aria from Marschner about what would happen to Parker/Aubrey if he broke his oath; some of this concept could be covered in dialogue too.

    Now what we need is someone to put on a much straighter version. Der Vampyr was just done in New Orleans last October in a Cajun setting but I didn’t know in time and had a schedule conflict.

    Here’s another and better idea: stage Marschner’s “Hans Heiling” of 1833 which from what I’ve read of it comes across as a Wagner’s Ring Cycle Prototype written the same year as Wagner’s first opera, Das Liebesverbot.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — July 20, 2014 at 2:00 am

  3. To see Marschner made into a cliché farce resembling a teenage vampire novel is laughable and annoying, if also painful. Schauerromantik is by definition designed to make the audience uncomfortable. It is doubtful that the plot would any more cleave the the social norms of the 19th century than it does now, and Gibson doesn’t seem to understand this.

    The voices were, as the reviewer points out, a mixed bag but mostly pre-professional, and considering the production I understand why Boston’s more professional singers decided to stay away from OperaHub’s latest experiment.

    I hope the direction team will do a bit more research in the future before attempting to rewrite another opera.

    Comment by Opera Goer — July 21, 2014 at 5:10 pm

  4. Sadly, I didn’t get to see this production. I will, however, comment on the question of fidelity to authorial intent. I’d observe that there is a long and (well maybe not) distinguished tradition in the world of theater of tangling with the original plot and ending. Shakespeare tragedies were routinely presented with re-written smiley-face happy endings to replace the existential agonies that end Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello. Operas have also certainly been subject to reworking, whether it was the composer himself (yes, usually himself) rewriting the opera for a different group of performers or multiple companies sharply abridging and changing endings of works like Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte to downplay Mozart’s tone of moral ambiguity. It’s only in the 20th century that a succession of literalists have made it a matter of course to reproduce a work as faithfully as possible (though even then, the dialogues from a show like Magic Flute get reshaped all the time and the Boston Lyric Opera’s reimagining last fall deviates quite drastically from the original intent of Schikaneder and Mozart).

    Whether the reworking works or not is a legitimate question, but like it or not, the texts have never been sacred and sacrosanct, and likely never will be.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — July 22, 2014 at 1:16 pm

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