Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Story of Marschner's 'The Vampire'

Heinrich Marschner's two-act opera is set in the Scottish highlands, and the dramatic overture leads to an opening chorus that quickly establishes the opera's spooky atmosphere.

ACT ONE begins on the estate of a man named Berkley, near a cavern the locals know as Vampire's Cave. A chorus of spirits sings about newts, toads and black cats. Soon the Vampire Master appears along with Lord Ruthven, an ancient vampire who has asked for one more year on earth. The Vampire Master agrees, but with one condition: Before midnight on the next day, Ruthven must sacrifice three, innocent brides. Ruthven accepts the challenge, and sings a diabolical aria, lustfully describing the "sweet blood" he'll soon drink from "blushing breast," and "purple lips."

His first victim is Berkley's daughter, Janthe. She's fallen in love with Ruthven, and meets him in secret in the wee hours of the morning. During a passionate duet, he lures her into the nearby cave.

When Berkley and his men come looking for Janthe, they hear a scream. A handful of men go into the cavern and emerge dragging Ruthven with them. Berkley promptly runs Ruthven through with his sword, and the vampire collapses — apparently dying. Other men also go into the cave. They find Janthe dead, and covered with blood. Berkley and his men go off, carrying Janthe's corpse.

This leaves Ruthven alone in the moonlight, which begins to revive him, and we then meet Ruthven's friend, Sir Aubry. Aubry has heard rumors that Ruthven is actually a vampire, and what's going on now seems to confirm that. But years before, Ruthven saved Aubry's life, and Aubry still feels indebted to him. Ruthven persuades Aubry to help him up to the rocks above the cave, where the restorative moonlight can shine in his eyes. He then makes Aubry swear an oath that he'll tell no one what he has seen that night.

The scene changes to the castle of Lord Davenaut. Davenaut's daughter Malwina is waiting for Aubry, who is her secret lover. When he arrives, the two sing a duet. Malwina has just turned 18, and she and Aubry hope they can soon be married. But Davenaut himself appears, and has other plans. He has already arranged for Malwina's marriage to a true aristocrat — the Earl of Marsden. Malwina and Aubry plead their case, but it's no use. Davenaut says the marriage to Marsden is a done deal, with the wedding scheduled for later that very day.

Just then, Marsden himself appears, along with a chorus of hunters. When she sees him, Malwina is immediately frightened. She has good reason: The man calling himself the Earl of Marsden is actually Lord Ruthven himself. Aubry immediately recognizes him — but Ruthven reminds Aubry of his oath, and Aubry says nothing.

The act closes with a vivid ensemble scene. Aubry begs Davenaut to put Malwina's wedding off until the next day, but Davenaut refuses. Malwina is terrified by her husband-to-be, and Ruthven eagerly anticipates the blood of his next victim.

As ACT TWO begins, we hear a chorus of drinkers, celebrating the upcoming wedding. We also meet Emmy. She's a servant in the Davenaut castle, which is nearby, and she's engaged to marry George Dibdin, another Davenaut servant. Ruthven, naturally, also has his eyes on Emmy, and she sings prophetic song about the legendary "pale man," a vampire who seduces young maidens and drinks their blood.

When she finishes, Emmy is approached by Ruthven, still posing as Marsden, who goes into his own seduction routine. Emmy's fiance sees this, and when he takes Emmy aside, Aubry appears. He tells Ruthven that he's going to betray his oath, and reveal Ruthven's true identity.

In a long and intense scene, Ruthven tells Aubry that if he goes through with that threat , Aubry himself will become a vampire, losing his soul and surviving on the blood of his loved ones. Ruthven storms out, leaving Aubry alone — and terrified by the choice he has to make.

Ruthven then returns to Emmy and continues his seduction. They sing a tender duet as Ruthven leads her toward a grove of trees. As the two disappear into the woods, four drunks appear, with one of them pursued by his angry wife.

There is considerable banter, which comes to quick stop when a gunshot is heard from the trees and a frantic George Dibdin appears. He says that Emmy is dead, and that he has just shot the Earl of Marsden. What he still doesn't know is that Marsden is actually Ruthven, and a single gunshot is scarcely enough to do in a vampire.

The scene changes to the Davenaut Castle, where Malwina tells Aubry that there's no hope. Her father is determined to have her marry the Earl that very day. A chorus of visitors is heard, and Ruthven arrives — still passing as Marsden and ready for the wedding.

Malwina refuses to accept the marriage, and emotions erupt. Davenaut curses his daughter. Aubry begs Davenaut to put the wedding off until tomorrow, and Davenaut momentarily agrees. But Ruthven objects, knowing that to stay alive he must kill Malwina before midnight, and Davenaut orders the wedding to go ahead as planned.

But Aubry can't bear to see Malwina marry Ruthven. Breaking his oath, he steps forward and tells everyone that the man calling himself the Earl of Marsden is actually a monstrous vampire. At those words, Ruthven is struck by a bolt of lightning, and immediately consumed by flames.

The assembled crowd is astonished, and Davenaut realizes that he nearly sent his own daughter to a horrifying death. He appeals to Malwina, and she forgives him. Then Davenaut blesses her marriage to Aubry, as the opera ends.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit