OPERA / Bit between the teeth: The vampire is back with a vengeance at the cinema, and is making a return after 164 years to the opera. Mark Pappenheim reports on two new versions of Marschner's Der Vampyr

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WITH Hollywood haemorrhaging vampire movies in the wake of Francis Ford Coppola's forthcoming dollars 40m Dracula spectacular - there are, at the latest blood count, half a dozen to follow in the same vein - it was only a matter of time before someone took the vampire myth and turned it into an opera. One hundred and sixty four years, to be exact: for Heinrich Marschner's Der Vampyr first saw the light of day in Leipzig in 1828.

Unlike most of the movies, Marschner's opera is based not on Bram Stoker's definitive Dracula, which didn't appear until 60 years later, but on The Vampyre, a product of the same nightmare-inducing soiree beside Lake Geneva that engendered Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the earliest known telling of the vampire legend in English literature. Published anonymously in 1819, the novella became an instant bestseller, not least because of the way its publisher astutely attributed its authorship to Byron himself rather than to his personal physician, Dr John Polidori.

The public taste for sex and scandal ensured The Vampyre's success; it was swiftly translated and adapted for the Parisian stage. In Hollywood fashion, the play spawned a swarm of sequels and spin-offs. Eight years later Marschner's Der Vampyr reached London in an English version by J R Planche (librettist of Weber's last opera, Oberon), which for the first time moved the action to the Transylvanian setting we now expect. It ran for over 60 performances, but Marschner's opera was soon forgotten.

Until now. For Der Vampyr is being brought back to life in two rival versions: one on stage, opening tonight at the Wexford Festival in Ireland; the other specially filmed for BBC 2, and due to be screened as a six-part soap opera over Christmas.

The idea of taking an obscure early 19th-century German Romantic opera and breaking it into bite-sized chunks for a mass TV audience occurred jointly to director Nigel Finch (co-editor of BBC 2's Arena) and his producer Janet Street-Porter. As regular opera-goers, they both felt that most previous televised opera had remained adamantly stage-stuck. As Finch remarks, 'Even the live Tosca from Rome was effectively a stage presentation on location', whereas what they wanted was to present an opera as a true television drama 'but one where the characters happen to sing instead of speak'.

Marschner's Der Vampyr was chosen, Finch explains, because it has tunes, a plot that lends itself to being chopped up into cliffhanging episodes and, above all, because, although it has a familiar storyline (the vampire is doomed to suck three virgins dry in 24 hours or forfeit his soul to the devil), 'the work itself is sufficiently obscure to stop opera buffs complaining about what we've done to 'their' opera'.

Wexford, on the other hand, has long had a policy of digging up opera's forgotten phantoms. The festival has resurrected Marschner before: his fairy fantasy Hans Heiling in 1983 and his Ivanhoe adaptation Der Templar und Die Judin in 1989. But even for opera buffs the composer still remains largely a textbook figure: the missing link between Weber and Wagner in the growth of German Romantic Opera.

Guido Johannes Rumstadt, Wexford's conductor, is keen to stress Marschner's qualities in his own right. He relishes the composer's subtle touches of orchestration - the use of two unison piccolo flutes, for example, to depict 'the laughter of hell'; the composer's bold attempt to fashion through-composed finales from the stop-go structure of the old-fashioned numbers opera; and his use of Italianate idioms to create 'a kind of German bel canto'.

Wexford's director, Jean-Claude Auvray, is also tackling the work on its own terms. 'We've tried to take the story very seriously,' he says. 'It's very easy to make it like a Marx Brothers caricature. We've tried to show it like a comic strip, but a comic strip for adults.' He has been at pains to exorcise the shades of the Hammer House of Horror: 'I think that's a gimmick. We have no blood on stage, no coffin, no garlic, no long teeth. We try to be a little more subtle.' In other circumstances, he says, it might have been interesting to investigate the Byronic overtones: 'Of course, poor Polidori's vampyre is Lord Byron. He was a real monster, not sucking blood perhaps, but sucking energy from all around him.' The reality of Aids has, however, given Auvray a vision of the vampire as more a victim of nature than an abomination against it. 'He is', he says, 'a man as any other - only he has a certain tendency for uncontrolled desires.'

Nigel Finch is wary of attributing the revival of the vampire myth to Aids, ascribing it rather to coincidence or fashion. 'It's a bloody good story. We've had a break from it for 10 years or so, and maybe something in the great cosmic unconscious says it's time to 'do the vampire' again. Each generation will find different resonances. But the whole Aids thing seems a little opportunistic. Yes, it's the ultimate exchange of bodily fluids, but it's also wider than that.'

By setting the story in the City of London circa 1992 and reincarnating Marschner's Scottish vampire as a bloodsucking City high-flyer, Finch hopes to refocus 'our fear of the exquisite stranger, the hidden terrors of the one-night stand' onto today's walking nightmare, the serial-killer.

But if this vampire is a sex killer, he's no rapist. As in the classic Hammer films, his victims are too willing. Charles Hart, librettist of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, and author of the new English text for the BBC adaptation, observes: 'Christopher Lee is always portrayed as this tremendously sexual being. Women are drawn irresistibly towards him, and then something dreadful happens to them. In our version, they don't just emerge with two neat pricks in their neck, though - they're literally ripped to bits. I mean, people will vomit when they see what we've done to them.' Yet, such is the moral ambiguity of the tale, they'll also be left rooting for the villain rather than his victims.

In Polidori, the vampyre lives to bite another day; in Marschner, he goes to hell. But, as Wexford's Auvray remarks with Gallic cynicism, we all know the heroine would have been happier with the toothsome villain rather than the milksop hero. But then, as Hart reluctantly concedes: 'There is also the comforting thought that the bogeyman finally gets his come- uppance, whether from a policeman pointing a gun or a priest brandishing a crucifix.'

The Wexford Festival production of 'Der Vampyr' opens tonight, 8pm, Theatre Royal, with further performances 27, 30 Oct, 2, 5, 8 Nov. Bookings: Wexford 010 353 53 22144.

(Photographs omitted)