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Sacrificial Seduction: Marschner's 'The Vampire'

Vampire stories have been around for centuries, and new tales of the undead are still popular today. Consider HBO's recent series "True Blood," in which vampires are a grudgingly accepted part of modern society — they can even buy a synthetic blood product, so they can quench their unusual thirst without biting so many necks.

Still, there's not much question about the most famous vampire of them all: Dracula, from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. If that book alone didn't immortalize the Transylvanian count, there have since been scores of movies about him, ranging from the 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi to Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version of the story, with Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder.

But Stoker's notorious title character is hardly the first vampire to catch the public fancy, and it was one of Dracula's literary ancestors that inspired Heinrich Marschner's atmospheric, 1828 opera, Der VampyrThe Vampire.

There's a well-known story about a gloomy, summer night in 1816 when Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy all challenged each other to write spooky stories. The two men didn't have much luck, while Mary Shelley came up with one of the most famous horror stories ever — Frankenstein.

But the three writers weren't the only ones present that night. Byron was accompanied by his traveling physician, a man named John Polidori. Byron, it seems, wrote fragments of a story — and Polidori eventually finished it. He called it "The Vampyre," and it was an immediate hit when it was published in 1819, under Byron's name.

Eventually, Polidori was rightly credited as the story's author — and it went on to influence vampire literature for generations. Its title character is a debonair vampire named Lord Ruthven, who bears a distinct resemblance to Stoker's Dracula. Both characters are more than just straightforward, bloodthirsty fiends; they're seductive aristocrats, preying on the daughters of Europe's elite families. And Polidori's story of Lord Ruthven is also the basis of today's opera by Heinrich Marschner.

Marschner's The Vampire was first performed in 1828, and its music is reminiscent of a more famous composer of German romantic opera, Carl Maria von Weber. It also has a touch of chromaticism, which at times seems to hint, just a little, at the later works of Richard Wagner. Like many German operas of the time, The Vampire mixes a number of elements. Along with arias, duets and choruses, it incorporates brief passages of spoken dialogue and even some melodrama — spoken dialogue accompanied by atmospheric music.

On World of Opera, with host Lisa Simeone, The Vampire comes to us from one of Italy's many fine, regional opera companies, the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, in a production starring baritone Detlef Roth as Lord Ruthven.

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