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Heinrich August MARSCHNER (1795–1861) Der Vampyr (1828)
Markus Marquardt (bass) – Sir Humphrey; Regina Klepper (soprano) – Malwina, his daughter; Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) – Edgar Aubry; Franz Hawlata (baritone) – Lord Ruthven; Yoo-Chang Nah (bass) – Sir Berkley; Anke Hoffmann (soprano) – Janthe, his daughter; Thomas Dewald (tenor) – George Dibdin; Anke Hoffmann (soprano) – Emmy Perth; Hein Heidbüchel (tenor) – James Gadshill; Kay Immer (tenor) – Richard Scrop; Franz Gerihsen (bass) – Robert Green; Josef Otten (bass) – Tomas Blunt; Marietta Schwittay-Niedzwicki (mezzo) – Suse; Dirk Schortemeier (bass) – A servant
WDR Rundfunkchor, Köln; WDR Rundfunkorchester Körn/Helmuth Froschauer
rec. Funkhaus, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Köln, WDR, 9–20 August 1999
Synopsis in German and English but no libretto CAPRICCIO C5184 [61:47 + 66:49]
The most important German opera composer between Weber and Wagner was Heinrich Marschner. Although he is largely forgotten today he was a link between the two great Ws. The influence of Weber (read Der Freischütz) is very obvious in Der Vampyr: the supernatural theme, the similarity between the scene in the Wolf’s Glen and the Witches’ Sabbath and the overall musical language. In the other direction Wagner’s Fliegende Holländer also owes something to Marschner: Emmy’s legend of the Vampire is a blueprint for Senta’s narration of the Dutchman and in both the character is described as ‘the pale man’.
Wagner’s relation to Marschner’s work was, however, even more intimate. At the premiere of Der Vampyr in Leipzig in 1828 Wagner, then 15 years old, was in the audience. Five years later in Würzburg Wagner worked on Der Vampyr as repetiteur.
Historical significance is one thing – but is Der Vampyr worth a listen today? Stories of ghosts and vampires have been in vogue from time to time and this one isn’t inferior to most of those. In short, Lord Ruthven is forced to sacrifice three virgins within 24 hours to save his own life. Having caught and killed the first, Janthe, he is discovered by the girl’s father who stabs Ruthven. The young Edgar Aubry appears and drags the dying Ruthven out in the moonlight, which revives him. Aubry has to promise not to tell anyone about this within the next 24 hours.
Aubry and Malwina are in love and want to marry but her father has already decided on another husband for her, the Earl of Marsden. When he arrives on the scene Aubry recognizes him to be Ruthven but has to keep silent because of his promise. The preparations for the wedding begin.
In act II Emmy is waiting for her husband-to-be and tells the legend of the Vampire. Ruthven appears and flirts with her. George appears and asks him to leave but he returns later and leads her away. George grabs his gun, follows them and finds Ruthven standing bent over Emma’s dead body. George shoots Ruthven in the moonlight but he survives and appears, rather late, as Marsden for his marriage to Malwina. Aubry decides to reveal the truth to save Malwina, whatever happens to himself. Just then the clock strikes one and he is released from his oath and can reveal that Marsden is Ruthven, the Vampire. The latter is struck by lightning and goes down into Hell. Malwina’s father now consents to the marriage between Malwina and Aubry. Everybody rejoices.
Not a bad thriller — something for the silver-screen. In fact it has been promoted in that direction. In 1992 the BBC made it into a TV series, The Vampyr: A Soap Opera and recently OperaHub in Boston presented an English-language adaptation of it. Everyone who has ever heard the Wolf’s Glen scene from Der Freischütz will remember the chill and horror it conveys and even today, 190 years later, it sounds ‘modern’. It is untypical of most of the opera. Most of Der Freischütz is rather well-behaved, even though Kaspar can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when sung by a malevolent bass-baritone. Marschner’s music is, as I have already mentioned, rather Weberian, which we realise from the beginning of the overture. It is symphonically conceived, well-structured and with colourful scoring, which all shows that was no amateur.
When the imaginative curtain rises we meet the witches who have gathered outside the vampire’s cave and their chorus, rather wild, breathes Wolf’s Glen. I wonder whether Verdi had heard Marschner’s opera when he composed Macbeth. Charles Osborne says nothing about that in The Complete Operas of Verdi (Gollancz, 1969). The Vampire, Lord Ruthven, is the Kaspar of this opera and a further influence could be Pizarro in Fidelio, though the latter is no supernatural character – he is just an evil human being.
Where Marschner differs from Weber is in the folk music elements. While this is a recurrent feature of Der Freischütz it’s only marginal in Der Vampyr. It is most prominent in the Act I duet between Janthe and Ruthven (CD 1 tr. 4). Arias are fairly rare in this opera, only five against thirteen ensembles, half of them with chorus, and two plain choruses, plus overture and an orchestral sostenuto between the two scenes of the first act. There are extended finales in both acts.
The singing is excellent. No surprisingly, the dominant character is Lord Ruthven. He is magnificently sung and acted by Franz Hawlata. Described as a baritone in the cast-list, he is, to my ears, more of a bass or at least a bass-baritone. Ochs, Hans Sachs and the Water Sprite in Rusalka are some of his great roles and his dark timbre makes him an extremely menacing vampire. He is heard in the opening Witches’ Sabbath and then in the formidable Ha! Welche Lust with preceding recitative (CD 1 tr. 3, an aria quite comparable to Kaspar’s arias in Der Freischütz. Throughout the opera he is magnificent.
He is not the only one. Both Markus Marquardt and Yoo-Chang Nah have big sonorous bass-voices here employed to good effect. On the distaff side Anke Hoffmann is murdered twice, since she doubles as Janthe and Emmy. A fine lyric light soprano her highlight is Emmy’s Lied and Romance at the opening of act II, where she sings of “den bleichen Mann” with threatening orchestra behind. The survivor, Malwina, who is saved by the bell so to speak, is a very good lyric-dramatic soprano. This role is the equivalent of Agathe in Der Freischütz and she introduces herself at the beginning of the second scene of act I, when she sings Heiter lacht die goldne Frühlingssonne (CD 1 tr. 7). Little does she suspect how dark her life will be during the forthcoming hours until that bell tolls at one o’clock. We, listeners, are treated to several really enjoyable occasions when she duets with her lover Edgar Aubry, who is no less a singer than a young Jonas Kaufmann, then just having turned thirty and already active on the international circuit. His was, not surprisingly, a more lyrical voice than the all-embracing tenor of today but all his characteristics are already there: his youthful ardour, his sensitive phrasing and the beauty of the voice. He is also vouchsafed an aria in the second act (CD 2 tr. 6) and the nuances and the brilliance point forward to today’s superstar.
I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to hear this - in a way - seminal opera in such a good recording. Marschner isn’t as forgotten as my opening paragraph hinted at. Both this opera and Hans Heiling (1833) are performed once in a while and there exist several recordings. Readers who are curious about German-speaking composers roughly contemporaneous with Wagner, and presumably already know Lortzing (b. 1801), Nicolai (b. 1810) and Flotow (b. 1812) should give their senior, Marschner, a try. In the bargain they get an early example of Jonas Kaufmann.