Review: Der Vampyr11:33, 11th February 2020
Der Vampyr – Heinrich Marschner
The Old Church, Stoke Newington, couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue for Gothic Opera’s debut production. Dating to 1563, with pointed spire and tumbling graveyard, it was filled with smoke and bathed in dusty red and white lights as the audience took their seats.
Der Vampyr is based on William Polidori’s short story The Vampyre (1819), considered to be one of the first examples of the vampire myth in European literature. Marschner’s opera was premiered in March 1828, and though his works are little known today, he was highly regarded in the 19th century.
The opera’s plot is introduced when vampire Lord Ruthwen is tasked by his master to recruit three virgin brides in 24 hours or else spend eternity in hell – but, in Gothic Opera’s telling of the tale, he must ‘obtain consent before each bite’ and there must be no ‘misunderstanding’. Will this 19th-century vampire succeed with modern day requisites?
Director Julia Mintzer took admirable steps to impart agency to Ruthwen’s ‘victims’, ultimately shifting autonomy in decision-making to the women. Janthe, the first victim, clearly delights in her sexuality and powers of seduction, stabbing her thigh to attract the vampire’s bite. Malwina, at the end of the opera, rejects the life laid out before her in favour of vampirehood: ‘I choose blood!’ The women’s destiny is their own.
The comic overtones to the production, however, sometimes risked undermining the message and led to a slightly uneasy dissonance: the mentions of ‘consent’ in Ruthwen’s instructions, for example, were humorous and were greeted by chuckles from the audience. Light-hearted treatment of contemporary concerns can certainly be an effective vehicle for making a deeper point – and perhaps the point here was to bring antiquated Gothic gender politics into sharp relief – but I wasn’t fully convinced of its success.
The production was visually engaging and made creative use of the church’s architectural features and spaces. The pulpit was decorated with giant gingerbread men, biscuits, cakes and sweets to represent Malwina’s imprisonment in childhood, further symbolised by her being dressed as a schoolgirl with pigtails. She is led on chains by her father, who cannot bear his daughter’s ‘feminine urges’. The way in which Malwina played with her hair – taking out her pigtails to indicate her dreamy desire for adulthood and her love for her sweetheart Aubrey – was a charming dramatic device.
Melodrama pervaded throughout the performance, mixed with moments of slapstick comedy and lashings of fake blood. The point at which Janthe and the Vampire Master, ravishing a dead man, turned to the audience to reveal themselves gorging on plastic hands and feet was of high comedic value, as was the extraction of Malwina’s father’s ‘intestines’: a pair of nude tights. Humour was also found in the gentle mocking of modern workplace jargon – ‘To fun, to freedom… to results’ – and local references: the text on an oversized wedding scroll read ‘I, Davenaut, Lord of this shitty village of Stokey-cum-Newington…’
Ian Beadle, well cast as Ruthwen, exhibited a rich, resonant and powerful baritone which filled the church. His diction was excellent and he displayed impressive control and dynamic range. Competing with Beadle for the diction prize was Grainne Gillis, the Vampire Master, who had the opportunity to reveal her full vocal prowess, with vibrant and bright tones, towards the end of the opera. Alice Usher as Malwina sang with crisp and lively precision. A natural actress, she revelled in the theatricality of her role. Janthe was sung by Béatrice de Larragoïti, who displayed a blossoming vibrato in her upper register, and Susanna MacRae as Emmy delighted with her sweet timbre.
Tenor Jack Roberts, singing Aubrey, revealed an impressively warm, mellow and accomplished voice. While Richard Moore was not as vocally strong, he made entertaining watching as Emmy’s drunken father in Act II. Jon Stainsby, playing Malwina’s father Davenaut, was effortlessly sonorous. The orchestral score was performed in a new version by musical director Kelly Lovelady, who achieved a fine balance between orchestra and singers.
All credit to Gothic Opera for staging this rarely performed opera with such palpable enthusiasm and (despite the work’s subject matter) joy. It will be interesting to follow the company’s progress.
Read company director Alice Usher’s article written for Opera Now