There has never been a successful vampire musical—so they say. But that’s just not true. There just hasn’t been one since 1828. That was the year Heinrich Marschner’s Der Vampyr appeared, derived from Dr. Polidori’s novella based, in turn, on the personality and reputation of the doctor’s employer, Lord Byron. Byron was but recently dead and there was an international craze for dark, mordant, accursed heroes irresistible to women who ought to know better.  

Byronic heroes and souls in jeopardy haunted the stage rather more than they did the cemetery or the family vault. Another Vampyr opera was composed by Lindpaintner before the year was out (“very successful in Stuttgart”), and this was also the era of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Hérold’s Zampa, Spohr’s Faust and Bellini’s Il Pirata. Souls in diabolic jeopardy! Revenge from beyond the grave! Amorous corsairs! Murky chord progressions! Cue the organ! Well, not much murk by later standards of course.

Der Vampyr, which was given a lively reading at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon by the American Symphony Orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale, conducted by Leon Botstein, is written in a tuneful idiom that will delight those familiar with such of Marschner’s contemporaries as Weber (Der Freischütz and Euryanthe) and Spohr (Jessonda). There are also lingering touches of Beethoven (Fidelio, obviously) and Mozart (Don Giovanni), and a hefty foretaste of Wagner. Indeed, one reason Der Vampyr makes a splendid choice for presentation now is the Wagner bicentennial.

Wagner loved this opera and conducted it often; elements of Marschner found their way into both Fliegende Höllander and Tannhäuser. Indeed, for one set of Vampyr performances, when the tenor (Wagner’s brother) found his aria insufficiently showy, the maestro dashed him off a new one. (This aria was given perhaps its New York premiere at this ASO performance.) Pfitzner prepared the performing edition usually used these days. I’ve heard it twice over the years, but only on small stages with piano accompaniment. It’s always fun, but full orchestra and full chorus make a great difference.

The plot is not the sort of thing we are accustomed to from Bram Stoker or Hollywood. Lord Ruthven (the name and the opera inspired Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore) has forfeited his soul to the Powers of Darkness. They agree to allow him one more year of blood-curdling existence if, within twenty-four hours, he can bring them the souls of three virgins on whom he has slaked his thirst.

There are, luckily, three such girls in town, all on the brink of matrimony: Innocence and an unbroken hymen were indissolubly linked in the gothic imagination. (I gather from recent vampire movies that this is still the case.) Ordinary (or male) blood just won’t provide the right kick. Two girls, Ianthe and Emmy, fall for the irresistible milord (whose wooing recalls Don Giovanni and Zerlina), but the third is Malwina, whose affections are already bestowed upon Ruthven’s great friend, Aubrey.

Aubrey has sworn to keep Ruthven’s secret, and Malwina’s father is a snob, eager for a noble son-in-law. Can Aubrey delay the wedding till midnight? This leads to a lengthy finale, not so much tense as irritating, and then a bell at midnight—and the vampire is foiled forever. God is good! That is, if one innocent saved out of three is a reasonable average. (Don’t think about it.)

Besides pages that might come from Mozart or Beethoven or Weber (a merry drinking song while Ruthven is offstage, as we know, drinking … but not beer), the music includes abrupt shifts to minor keys that hint at dark doings and themes that develop like leitmotivs. Emmy sings a vampire ballad that echoes a theme from the overture, and no sooner has she sung it than—a pale man appears at her shoulder. A duet ends in a sustained horn call that prevents our applause and leads into the next big scene. Wagner learned a lot from this score.

Then why is Der Vampyr scarcely known outside the German-speaking world, rare enough even there? In part because, though this is a singspiel, with spoken dialogue between the numbers, it is by no means easy to play. Too many notes, as Joseph II might say—very high ones for the three co-heroines. Ianthe is little more than a walk-on, but she has to toss some high lines before she croaks.

Emmy has two romances, a trio and a duet in Act II, and then out she goes. It’s a lot of work for little reward. Perhaps some enterprising diva with Hoffman behind her (Hoffman himself was the spirit of this age, quite as much as Byron, eh?) would be willing to take on all three of Ruthven’s ladies in a single night. The tessitura is more similar, and the fact that she’d keep coming to life after decease might provide a certain … frisson … suitable to the genre. (Some German director has probably already done this.)

Then, even after you’ve hired three prima donna sopranos and a sexy baritone (required!), you still need a strong tenor for Aubrey, a bass and a contralto for the drinking song, an orchestra up to, say, Fidelio, and a really excellent chorus. The Collegiate Chorale under Thomas James Bagwell were constantly stealing the scenes in this performance, portraying demons, huntsmen, puzzled wedding guests and drunken peasants. They were, for my money, the stars of the entertainment.

Choral singing (as Maestro Botstein pointed out in his pre-concert lecture) served a principal social function in the towns of repressed, disunited Germany at this time, and Marschner wrote for them brilliantly, using the colors of different voices to get naturalistic and supernaturalistic effects. Small opera houses might be wary of a score depending so much on an elaborate chorus.

The ASO performance, besides picking a crackerjack chorus, had a crackerjack Ruthven in Nicholas Pallesen. Those of us who thought this singer underemployed as the heavy in the Collegiate’s Beatrice di Tenda last Fall had no such regrets at Vampyr. Pallesen appeared in black suit and shirt with a crimson tie; he was into it.

His sensuality as he dwelt in prospect or reverie on the juicy lips (and veins) of his victims, his reproaches when they resisted his flirtations, his rage at Aubrey’s attempts to stop him, his taunts of his enemies, painted the Byronic hero in hues worthy of Caspar David Friedrich. His diction was true, his singing strong and seductive all afternoon. His Don Giovanni, when he gets around to it, should be worth catching.

Tamara Wilson sang a lovely, very Germanic-sounding Malwina, with weight and force for troubled emotions and the technique for the part’s ferocious sky-ward leaps, though once or twice shooting beyond the ideal note. Jennifer Tiller took the less strenuous but more varied role of Emmy, the Zerlina figure (if you like), arousing our sympathetic dread with a beautiful phrased Romance, succumbing to Lord Ruthven in luscious duet. Alison Buchanan was miscast as Ianthe. Suzanne Schwing displayed some good notes as the well-named Mrs. Blunt, the drunkard’s wife.

Vale Rideout sang amorous Aubrey, and though he held his own in duets with Miss Wilson and Mr. Pallesen, he was painfully flat in much of his solo music, including the Wagner-revised aria. Carsten Wittmoser sang Malwina’s snotty father with more character than musicality, Michael Riley tossed off the drinking song, and Glenn Seven Allen did a stalwart turn as Emmy’s confused fiancé. No man likes to find his bride kissing a vampire, however aristocratic, even if it leads to a charming trio; Mr. Allen’s indignation was all it should be.

Botstein and the ASO, dipping into somewhat earlier operatic repertory than usual, took a scene or two to work up to the proper hurtling pace for their penny-dreadful plot. The score may seem unsophisticated if you’re used to Strauss or Schreker or Zemlinsky, but Marschner knew how to tell a ghost story, and Botstein brought his climaxes vividly to life.