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Staging fear : how do dark and fantasy imaginary worlds develop into 19th century French grand opera

Soon after the Revolution (1789-1799), Paris attracted a significant number of opera composers coming from all countries of Europe and mostly Italy. During the Consulate (1799-1804) and the Empire (1804-1815), Napoleon aspired to turn opera into a place of magnificence, much to his image. To that end, Paris became the undisputed capital of opera, thanks to the nearly unlimited funds allocated to the Académie de musique, which enabled it to put on highly ambitious and spectacular shows and to hire the most talented decorators. The directors were always on the lookout for the latest technical innovations to further impress their audience, such as Pierre-Luc-Charles Cicéri and Solomé, who are credited with the invention of mass stage effects.

This period saw the blossoming of French Grand opera, a genre specific to the 19th century, which applies more particularly to the works composed between 1820 and 1870. It is most often composed of four or five acts, and its most characteristic features include an outstanding cast with a great number of roles, a very large orchestra, a display of monumental sets and spectacular stage effects, glorifying an epic plot, usually inspired by a dramatic historical event.

In order to satisfy the audience’s demands, it also had to include a ballet, generally placed during act III or IV. This requisite came from the wealthiest patrons, who often took more of an interest in the female dancers than in the opera itself, and who welcomed this suspended time in the action as an opportunity to socialize in their private box. The ballet became an important part of the social prestige of the work, and of its posterity.

Several works are considered to be the precursors of this French genre. In this respect, it is interesting to note that it was Italian composers who most often contributed to create and establish its patterns : Spontini’s La Vestale (1807), Cherubini’s Lodoïska (1791), Rossini’s Le Siège de Corinthe (1827), to name a few, compiled all the necessary ingredients and were highly successful amongst the Parisian audience.

Right before the abdication of Charles X (1830), two works mark a turn in the Parisian musical landscape: Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1828), along with embracing all the archetypes of the genre, drew its plot from an episode of the modern history, which was a welcomed novelty. This revolution story, set in Naples in 1647 and ending with an eruption of the Vesuvius, was the perfect incarnation of musical and scenic sensationalism which was soon to become the trademark of Grand opera. Eugène Scribe, who wrote the libretto, was already a major figure, having specialized in the transcription of historical subjects into melodramas, to better suit the taste of the audience at the time.

The second landmark is Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829). Rossini skillfully merged the Italian melodic lyricism with French language and located the action in the Alps, which allowed him to make use of picturesque local colours. In this opera, the monumental chorus is a character in itself, and the lead tenor distinguishes himself in ensembles of rising power which galvanize the audience.

Along with Louis-Philippe’s accession to the throne (9th August 1830), the Paris Opera, which had until then depended on the state, got privatized. ‘Director- entrepreneur’ Louis Véron invested a large amount of money, at his own risk, into Grand opera shows. He took over the production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831), initiated by his predecessor, which fitted perfectly with the liberal mentality of the 1830s. Its powerful combination of melodrama, spectacular effects, arias and dramatic choruses, along with a Gothic subject, was an ideal match for the new taste models dictated by the rich bourgeoisie. 

The taste for luxury and extravagance in French opera started to fade after the Revolution of 1848, and the new productions proved to be commercially less viable than before. Grand opera started to decline, even though some composers, such as Gounod (La Nonne Sanglante, 1854) or Halévy (La Magicienne, 1858), continued to defend the genre.

This taste for the spectacular goes hand-in-hand with a renewed taste for Gothic and fantasy fiction. This literary genre, born in England, found its roots in Europe’s general infatuation with sentimental stories throughout the 18th century, and was born out of the terror that would arise, were reason to be overcome by passion in its most unspoken and uncontrollable expression. It goes hand in hand with a renewed interest for the medieval era. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is generally considered as the starting point of this genre.

Gothic fiction created fear by using suspense and rather conventionally stereotyped plots : soft-hearted heroines are under the yoke of evil characters driven by an irrepressible lust and thirst for power, who abuse them and of their credulity. Around these main characters, ghosts, ruins and the underground world enable the reader’s imagination to surrender delightfully to the supernatural and horror atmosphere.

The enthusiasm for the past allowed the authors, with delectable pleasure, to set their plots in haunted castles, crypts, church ruins, desolate moors, prisons and cemeteries, usually in an exotic setting. The characters who inhabit these stories, vampires, satanic priests, revenants, witches, innocent young girls, nuns, make deals with the devil, suffer incarceration and torture, surrender to vampirism and satanism, and are haunted by their gloomy past.

Despite a notable enthusiasm in France (with Madame de Genlis’ Alphonsine, 1806) and in Germany (with Schiller’s Die Raüber, 1782 and Heinrich Spiess’ Das Petermänchen, 1791, some emblematic works of the Sturm und Drang movement), England remains Gothic fiction’s home ground, thanks, mostly, to female writers. Ann Radcliffe, with the Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) would come to be the most successful author of sentimental Gothic fiction. Other works implement a much more terrifying atmosphere, such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, William Thomas Beckford’s oriental tale Vathek (both published in 1796), and Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein (1818). If Gothic fiction in itself tends to disappear around 1820, its posterity, however, is long-lasting, be it literary, musical or theatrical.

In music, those themes find a jubilant posterity in instrumental works (the Sabbath Dance in Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, 1830) as well as in operas. Weber’s Freischütz (1820) gathers all the archetypes : a dark forest at night, a supernatural atmosphere, a pact with the devil... Furthermore, the music itself is part of the drama and contributes to immerse the audience in the action, whilst creating a feeling of instability and a strange and disturbing atmosphere, thanks to unprecedented alliances of instruments.

 

As for the word ‘fantasy’, it contemplates various realities. At the beginning of the 1830’s, it refers to what cannot be described, a literal or musical logic which one does not understand, and which blurs the codes and the expectations of the audience – in a nutshell, to what is seen or felt as irrational.

Following the French reception of Hoffmann’s stories, the word ‘fantasy’ started to evoke a certain form of German strangeness, as opposed to French fairytales. In fact, it would appear to be a clumsy attempt at transposing Fantasiestücke, a German generic term to name tales ; the word ‘fantasy’ would then refer, not only to the strangeness of the prose, but also to its foreign nature.

With Robert le Diable, Scribe, Delavigne and Meyerbeer are the first to succeed in syncretizing all these influences, despite the irony of their German contemporaries, like Heine :

‘‘Oh spiritual Frenchmen, you should recognize that terror is not your genre, and that France is not the proper soil to breed such spectres. When you bring about ghosts, we cannot help but laugh : your revenants are French spectres. French spectres ! what a contradiction ! In this word spectre, there is so much isolation, growling, silence, German ; and in the word French, so much sociability, kindness, chatter and French !’’

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At the turn of the 19th century, the French audience, characterized by an emerging bourgeoisie which came into power after the Revolution, is very fond of romantic dramas and melodramas. An inheritor of bourgeois entertainments, this genre develops spectacular effects in order to thrill its audience. The specialized theatres flourish on the boulevard du Temple, later referred to as ‘boulevard du Crime’ because of the many ‘crimes’ committed there on stage each night.

It is generally considered that the first melodrama is Pixérécourt’s Victor ou l’enfant de la forêt (1799). In those pieces, the music is there to highlight the dramatic effects, the characters are extremely codified (virtuous heroine, noble knight, cruel prince, silly comedy lackey...). There is an unashamed use of still ‘tableaus’. The main feature of melodramas are exaggeration, and the grandiloquence, emphasis and excessiveness of the acting and the staging, as well as the machinery effects (floods, fire, volcanic eruptions, fairies, devils and ghosts) to tell highly moral stories, in which persecuted innocents are rescued by a noble hero. Music serves as a vehicle and a contrast to the characters’ emotional turmoils, and allows transitions to take place. This popular genre brings together a melting pot of social classes, mixing wealthy bourgeois with a much more modest audience.

On the boulevard du Crime, the audience also appreciated the military plays of the Cirque-Olympique, and Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s pantomimes (a celebrated French mime of Bohemian origins, he is the creator of the pantomimic character Pierrot, and was immortalized by Marcel Carné in his film Les Enfants du Paradis ), which attracted both a popular and intellectual audience.

Halfway between painting and theatre, panoramas had a strong visual effect on the Parisians : by placing them in the middle of wide panoramic paintings, this device gave them the illusion of taking part in great battles, discovering exotic countries or going back in time.

Melodrama is often associated with another genre which also shows the impact of spectacular effects and staging on the audience of the July Monarchy (1830-1848) : the magical extravaganza. After a prologue, the heroes travel through various whimsical countries, before a happy ending grand finale. These shows are openly based on improbability and the accumulation of tricks. Each extravaganza became a blockbuster, requiring always bigger financial investments. 

Fantastic effects are no use in front of an audience unwilling to surrender to its imagination, and these entertainments made a very strong impression on the particularly emotional crowd of the boulevards, which heartily came to embrace those thrills along with the hoi polloi.

In order to further integrate the audience into the action and to constantly create surprise, all sorts of stage effects got perfected during that time. Two-way mirrors were placed on the stage, showing only the head of the actors behind them. Louis Daguerre invented the Diorama, a trick device made out of multi- layered paintings and conceived like a theatre show in itself. Daguerre had been very successful in creating sets for the Opera, in which he used gas lighting to create a moving sun, which highly impressed the audience. For the Diorama, he invented a system of monumental sets, painted on both sides on a translucent linen canvas, which changed according to the variations of intensity and the direction of the light. The effects were so subtle that the audience, including the most skeptical reviewers, was astounded, and had the impression to witness real scenes.

Let’s mention as well Robin (1811-1874), a magician specialized in the apparition of spectres, and Pepper's ghost, an illusion technique named after English scientist John Henry Pepper (1821-1900), which consisted in a large glass screen, set at an angle, that catched a reflection from a brightly lit actor hidden underneath the audience. Not noticing the glass screen, the audience mistakenly perceived this reflection as a ghostly figure located among the actors on the main stage. The lighting of the actor in the hidden area can be gradually brightened or dimmed to make the ghost image fade in and out of visibility. 

Finally, phantasmagorias, invented by Belgian physicist Robertson (1763-1837), were a form of horror theatre using projections, heirs of the magic lanterns. They consisted in projecting and animating, onto a canvas or smoke screen, miniature painting drawn on glass sheets or engraved on opaque material. Some projectors, equipped with a double lens and tiny devices, enabled to create fade-outs, enlargements and animated images. One can easily imagine the ‘fantastic’ potential of such a device for the audience at that time, all the more when these spooky happenings came with sound effects (mimicking the wind, the thunder, bells...).

All these effects turned each show into a multi-sensorial experience, prefiguring the ‘total art’ that would soon to be grand opera, and implemented a new way of experiencing the show as an audience. Even though critics and intellectuals tried to dismiss this fact, these new techniques were to be used with great enthusiasm by the creators of grand operas. These dramaturgy and visual elements would come to serve ‘grand’ music, as the ultimate springboard which would propel the audience into mysterious, elusive and disturbing worlds.

Béatrice de Larragoïti, Artistic Director

About vampires

What if a vampire was hidden in the darkest corners of the soul of each one of us? What if allowing ourselves to shiver with delight from the thought of a vampire was actually a way of exteriorizing our own fears and by doing so, getting rid of them?

Nosferatu, Dracula, Twilight, Buffy, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Penny Dreadful... are just a few examples of how vampiric themes are successfully explored in our times through different artistic forms. Spectacular and fertile extensions of gothic novels, these topics started to appear in European literature towards the end of the eighteenth century, although the concept of the vampire already existed, often under other names, notably in Greek antiquity. It had also been popularized by existing myths such as that of the Wallachian monarch Vlad III Tepes (1431-1476), alias Vlad Dracula, who used to stake the road to his castle with the impaled bodies of his enemies, or Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1614), who was found guilty of murdering young virgins and bathing in their blood in order to preserve her own immortality and sexual desire.

William Polidori’s short story The Vampyre, written in 1819, is considered the first clear and developed mention of the vampire in European literature. Just like gothic novels, vampire tales reflect the frustrations and sensibilities of Enlightenment society. Science, economy, and faith in progress were meant to remove all irrational fears from civilisation, under the almost totalitarian straitjacket of rationality. Industrial revolutions, positivism and mechanisation had designed a world that no longer gave any room for passion, uncertainty and uncanniness - but which hadn’t been able to stem poverty. Much like the Enlightenment, our contemporary times are shaped by rationalism, science, constant technological progress and a capitalist economy, but also severe impoverishment. Both those periods face a hyper-modern and therefore intimidating reality, and to get through these fin de siècle, humans feel the need to indulge in their imagination, subconscious, passions, compulsions and fantasies. Living without any fears would mean installing ourselves in a deadly stillness, ignoring the existence of our dark side. There is a strong correlation between the success of vampiric literature and civilisation malaise, which resonates nowadays with the success of Halloween and ghostly themes. Maybe vampire stories are here to help us safeguard the integrity of our psychical balance...

The vampire is the finest archetype of the intruder; he takes the form of a peculiar visitor who disrupts the established order, and therefore favours the union of mankind against him. His immorality also lies in the fact that every single person he visits is immediately under his spell and becomes totally passive. He can be everywhere (in our story, he incarnates successively Ruthwen and the Lord of Marsden), possesses exceptional strength, and absorbs his ‘vital’ energy from the moonlight. He also fascinates because of his mysterious coldness. The vampire is an oxymoron by nature: he is alive and dead at the same time, both charming and horrendous, and the ones who find themselves under his influence feel strongly ambivalent sensations.

The Vampyre was written during the now famous ‘year without a summer’ in 1816, when Lord Byron, his doctor William Polidori, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and her sister Claire Clairmont, were staying at the Villa Diodati in Cologny, Switzerland, on the borders of the lake Léman. The exceptionally awful weather of that summer caused one of the most fantastic situations (in every sense of the word) in the history of English literature. The young people spent their time reading compilations of horrific novels, and Byron had the idea of organizing a contest of macabre tales. Whilst Mary Wollstonecraft drafted what would become a visionary masterpiece of gothic literature, Frankenstein, Byron wrote the unfinished A Fragment, whose main character, Augustus Darwell, is considered as the prototype of Polidori’s Ruthven.

His extreme strangeness, his ambiguous friendship with the narrator, the oath that he imposes to his friend... all those layers are to be exacerbated in Polidori’s story, which ends appropriately on the word ‘VAMPIRE!’, in capital letters. This choice not only contributes to place this short tale under the sign of a tragic circularity; it also very dramatically engraves the word in the reader’s mind.

Polidori experienced mixed feelings for his employer, both admiration and jealous resentment at how he treated women, and as such provided his main character with a malefic byronian aura. Lord Ruthven has the savage and fierce temperament of the noble lord, his triumphant marginality, and a strong will to defy, with his seductive, Don Giovanni-like behaviour, the rules that his contemporaries keep following. He possesses the genius of evil, and like Byron, practices immoralism.
He is too much of an aristocrat to stop at the mediocrity of what is ‘normal’, and too proud and too independent not to be splendidly transgressive. We also can’t ignore the fascination that Ruthven has for Aubrey, which reflects the ambiguous attraction that Polidori probably felt for Byron, who was bisexual.

The vampiric myth is therefore a prolongation and exaggerated feature of the gothic novel, which indulges in the delight of fostering predictable terror. The reader/ audience has to feel that the victim is caught in a net. The predictability of the situation intensifies our anxiety: the reader experiences an ambiguous pleasure in seeing the victim being pinned down, as well as mixed feelings of angst based on empathy. We feel the ‘delightful terror’ theorised by Edmund Burke in his treaty on the aesthetic and the sense of the sublime, which we chose as our company motto.

Wilhelm August Wohlbrück’s libretto, based on the play Der Vampir oder die Totenbraut (1821) by Heinrich Ludwig Ritter, itself based upon Polidori’s piece, subscribes to all these gothic archetypes. Despite a few plot differences (the character of Janthe, very important in the novel, is shortly replaced by the second bride, Emmy, who is barely mentioned in the story; and Malwina becomes Aubrey’s fiancee whereas she is his sister in the novel), Marschner’s opera definitely succeeds in amplifying the dramatic tension that potentially lies in each episode of Polidori’s short story. The argument scene between Ruthwen and Aubrey in Act II is particularly striking, and impressively embodies what an altercation between Polidori and Byron might have been like. 

Heinrich Marschner is considered to be the missing link between Weber and Wagner. A friend of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, he was a rival of Weber, and was thought of as one of the leading composers in Europe from about 1830 until the end of the nineteenth century, notably praised by Schumann and Wagner. Wagner himself conducted a performance of Der Vampyr in Köln, and composed on this occasion the allegro of Aubrey’s aria, after his brother, who was singing the role, had complained that the existing aria didn’t show him off enough. Another interesting fact is that Emmy’s romance of Act II provided Wagner with the inspiration for Senta’s ballad in Der Fliegende Holländer.

The first performance of Der Vampyr took place in Leipzig on 29 March 1828. Although it was a hit, it has rarely been revived since. 

Béatrice de Larragoïti

In Dracula, the victims, once bitten, become vampires themselves, unless someone specifically prevents this via a stake through the heart, decapitation, or other loophole. In Marschner’s opera, however, we don’t know much about anyone’s human-to-vampire transition. We never learn how Ruthwen became a vampire, or what might happen to Janthe and Emmy after their deaths. So it is entirely possible that there is another chapter in the stories of these three women.

A chapter in which they all become vampires. A chapter in which they bypass their oppressive circumstances through the most straightforward route possible: by outliving them. In our adaptation of the dialogue, the Vampire Master says: “I cannot promise what eternity will will bring ...but... if the world ever catches up with us, you will be around to celebrate...” Our three heroines cannot know what it will be like to be alive in one hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years, but whatever the future holds, it will surely be better than the lives they are living when we encounter them.

The last decades have seen a wave of retellings of classic works from the perspectives of characters, often female, whose era might not have afforded them a voice: Sunday in the Park with George, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Other Boleyn Girl, or more recently, The Women of Whitechapel at English National Opera. In keeping with this new tradition, I wanted to take the opportunity to imagine the “real story” behind Der Vampyr - the tell-all, true-crime series we might have seen on late-night television, long after Ruthwen’s case was formally adjourned. What if Marschner’s Der Vampyr were a fictionalised version of a murder case, based on the news coverage, based on the official sheriffs’ report, based on the local officers’ responses, based on the witness accounts? How far might this fictionalised version be from the actual events? In this long chain of storytellers, what facts might have been accidentally lost, or have been culturally impermissible? What motives might the witnesses to these murders not have been willing or able to accept, or even understand, given their cultural context?

The original text of this opera asks the audience to root for the antihero as he deceives and then assaults (or attempts to assault) the three female protagonists. Vampire horror is among a number of widely popular genres that still don’t question sexualising violence against women. In telling the “real story” of Ruthwen’s last day on earth, I wanted to stay faithful to a narrative that fit the original material - respecting the shape of the opera and its creators’ intentions - while also considering that the agency might not lie where the character’s contemporaries would have assumed. I wanted to allow Janthe, Emmy, and Malwina to reveal the story that Marschner and Wohlbrück might have not been allowed to tell, been too embarrassed to tell, have been censored out of telling, or were simply unable to tell because their cultural context didn’t allow them to consider it.

I wanted to tell the story that Malwina, looking back as a thousand-year-old vampire, might recount to her disciples, finally able to laugh at how hard she had to work to own her own vampire power. So while in 2019, we can look back in our informed hindsight at Ruthwen’s story, who knows what the Vampire Master might say about this in another thousand years?

Julia Mintzer, director of Der Vampyr.

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