Monday, June 30, 2008

The Vampyr: A Soap Opera (BBC, 1992)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Vampyr (notice the spelling), based on an 1827 opera by German composer Heinrich Marschner, who because even in his own day he was considered a second-tier talent (for decades he was the resident composer in Hanover and never quite made it in Berlin) has largely been forgotten since even though opera historians consider him a significant figure, the most important German opera composer between Weber and Wagner. The story has one of the most convoluted textual histories of any opera: it began at that legendary soirée in Switzerland between George Gordon, Lord Byron; his traveling companion, John Polidori; Byron’s great rival Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, during the weeks they spent on vacation at Lake Geneva and one night they decided they would each write a ghost story.

As Mary Shelley recounted in the preface to her 1831 revision of Frankenstein — her contribution to the group’s efforts and the only one that was actually finished — “the noble author [Byron] began a tale, a fragment which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery … commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole — what to see I forget — something very shocking and wrong, of course.”

Byron’s “fragment” was a story about a young man (the narrator) who became the traveling companion of a mysterious older man named Lord Darvell; they toured Greece together (as Byron and Polidori in fact had) and then Darvell mysteriously got sick and died, but just before his death he swore his companion to an oath of secrecy that he was not to divulge his existence or the manner of his death. Byron’s fragment never mentions vampirism, but Polidori recorded in his diary that Byron had told him the reason for Darvell’s actions was that he was a vampire and therefore could not really die, but also did not want his true identity revealed when he revived and set out in the world looking for fresh victims.

Polidori expanded on Byron’s fragment and published a story of his own, The Vampyre, in 1819, a gruesome tale in which the vampire, now called “Ruthven” (an in-joke since that was the name used for an unsympathetic character based on Byron in the novel Glenarvon by Byron’s former mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb), returns to life and starts courting the sister of his former traveling companion, here called Aubrey (he was nameless in the Byron fragment). Aubrey is torn between his oath to the vampire and his desire to save his sister from becoming his latest victim, and at the end Aubrey’s sister and Ruthven are married, Aubrey reveals the vampire’s identity but too late to stop the wedding, and eventually Aubrey goes mad and dies of a burst blood vessel from his grief while his sister becomes Ruthven’s latest victim. (To get his story published, Polidori hinted that Byron was the actual author, but the piece is so dreadfully written — especially by comparison to the eloquence of the fragment Byron actually wrote — that’s impossible to believe.)

The Vampyre was an instant sensation — it was translated into French at least three times and into German twice — and in 1820 a trio of French authors, François Adrien Carmouche, Charles Nodier and Achille de Jouffroy, did a stage adaptation of it, changing the story so that the vampire actually dies twice — first as in the Byron and Polidori versions, then posing as his brother, Count Marsden, in which guise he courts Aubrey’s sister Malwina and extracts the vow of secrecy from Aubrey after Aubrey recognizes him and a subsidiary character, Edgar (Malwina’s former boyfriend), shoots Ruthven out of jealousy (though Ruthven’s second “death” turns out to be as temporary as his first), but in this version there’s a happy ending in which both Aubrey and Malwina delay the wedding long enough so that Ruthven misses his 1 a.m. deadline to recruit his latest victim or return to hell forever; Malvina is saved, Ruthven is taken to hell (like Don Juan in a story Byron wrote as a poem after Mozart had done it as an opera to da Ponte’s libretto) and Aubrey lives.

Marschner’s opera was composed in 1827 and made a few significant changes to the story: Aubrey became Malwina’s boyfriend instead of her brother; Malwina’s father, Davenaut, arranges the marriage between her and Ruthven to get his hands on Ruthven’s fortune; instead of being attracted to Ruthven as in the French play, Malwina loathes and fears him from the first and the conflict is within her — between filial duty to her father and her own heart. Marschner’s librettist, Wilhelm August Wohlbrück (also his brother-in-law; and Wohlbrück’s sister/Marschner’s wife was also a diva who frequently took leading roles in his operas, like such other famous composer/singer couples as Gioacchino Rossini and Isabella Colbran, Giuseppe Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, and Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears). In this version, there’s a prologue set in hell that spells out the conditions for Ruthven’s continued existence on earth; he must kill and drink the blood of three female victims in as many days, and if he fails he will be dragged down to hell forever.

The BBC took on this project in the early 1990’s when they decided they wanted to do an English-language modern-dress adaptation of an opera; they wanted the work to be something from the 19th century so it would sound like audiences expected an opera to sound, but they also wanted a work sufficiently obscure that almost nobody watching the program would have heard it before and therefore they wouldn’t be coming with preconceived notions as to what it should sound like and how it should be staged. They hired writer Charles Hart to do the English text, which I gather was not an attempt to translate Wohlbrück’s literally but to tell the same story in words which would fit both Marschner’s music and the updated modern-dress setting.

In this version, Hart changed the characters’ names but kept close to the sound of the originals: “Ruthven” is now Ripley (a reference to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley? The famous film of Highsmith’s novel didn’t come out until 1999, seven years after this movie, but the book was a well-regarded, popular work that had spawned at least four sequels and had previously been filmed in France, and like Highsmith’s Ripley, Hart’s is also a sinister villain with a young, basically decent but almost terminally naïve man in tow), and after being accidentally exhumed from his tomb when a construction crew disturbed his grave, he’s summoned to a Satanist gathering led by a Black high priestess (played by a woman identified only as “Winston” who I assume was a British supermodel) and given the three-victims-in-three-days-or-else instruction.

Previously he had used his unexpected resurrection to make himself a fortune in businesses both legitimate and otherwise, and Aubrey becomes his assistant Alex, who’s fought his way back from a drug habit Ripley gave him and is secretly dating Malwina, who’s here called Miranda but is still subject to pressure from his father, who lost his money through bad investments and sees Ripley’s fortune as his route back to good financial health — though the idea of a formerly rich man essentially selling his daughter into an arranged marriage to restore his financial standing dates badly in a 19th century London setting. The victims Ripley claims before he sets his sights on Miranda are changed from Janthe to Ginny, a young woman Ripley picks up after she’s left alone on the streets at night following an argument with her boyfriend; and from Emmy to Emma, an office assistant Ripley picks up in a singles bar.

It’s pretty clear that the BBC picked this of all operas to revive in this format because of the continued popularity of vampire stories and the iconography behind them — indeed, Hart rather uneasily grafted some of the Dracula iconography onto a vampire story that predates Bram Stoker’s, notably the way Ripley changes to a wolf (a quite effectively done digital effect) just before he actually attacks his victims — and for the most part Hart deserves points for writing English that’s intelligible even when sung to 19th century music (only in a few of the vocal ensembles — always the biggest trap for libretto writers — did the text disappear into the musical mass) and for translating Wohlbrück’s characterizations and situations into modern equivalents.

The one key point he blew is the vow of silence, which simply disappears from the story — Alex gets into his sports car and drives away from the wedding between Ripley and Miranda in disgust, then thinks better of it and drives back in a scene that rather jarringly resembles the end of The Graduate — a mistake because the twisted loyalties of the 19th century versions would have made Alex a more sympathetic character and his dilemma far more understandable. Director Nigel Finch applied an appropriately over-the-top visual style to this story, and though I’d heard of only one of the cast members before (bass Richard Van Allan, who plays Miranda’s father Davenant), the principals were excellent singing actors who also benefited from looking their parts: Omar Ebrahim is a dangerously charismatic presence as well as having a strong “belt” baritone that fits the music and Hart’s text well; Philip Salmon is a solid lyric tenor as Alex; and Fiona O’Neill is a bit more heavy-set than one would expect in the female lead in a 1992 horror film, she’s certainly curvaceous enough and her voice is also a good one, though she has a bit of a problem with Marschner’s coloratura.

About the only risible element was the narrator, Robert Stephens (Billy Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes), whom Charles thought came off too much like the criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and added an element of risibility to what was intended as straight blood-freezing horror. There was a rather quirky credit to the Stuttgart Opera — did they stage a modern-dress Vampyr and were some of the props and costumes from that production used here? For some reason called The Vampyr: A Soap Opera (though its only commonality with soap opera was that it was broadcast as a five-part serial — and whoever uploaded it to OperaShare was working from a videotape made off the air, and the fifth and last part had inferior reception to the others and frequently the colors faded out completely and the film became black-and-white), this is actually a quite appealing production, even though judging from what I’ve read about the Marschner/Wohlbrück original and the English translation of Wohlbrück’s libretto I’ve downloaded, Ruthven is a far more conflicted character than Ripley, wracked by guilt and wishing for a normal death, whereas Ripley is an amoral psychopath with no compunction about what he’s doing,

It makes me want to hear the German original (and apparently CD’s of this and Marschner’s other most popular opera, Hans Heiling — also about a supernatural being who makes a deal with the devil for the love of a woman, but ultimately loses her to a normal and decent human being — are readily available from the usual private sources), and it’s quite obvious where Der Vampyr fits into the evolution of German opera, neatly between Weber’s Der Freischütz (which also features a rustic German country setting, a wedding and a deal with the devil) and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (whose protagonist is similarly under a curse, though Wagner’s character is sympathetic and seeks the love of a woman, not her murder, to redeem him).