Carpe Noctem !

Posted by James Bell on June 12, 2008 in Blog tagged with

Carpe Noctem ! A Celebration of Tanz der Vampire

 

by James Bell

 

 

 

 

“So I bless you with my curse,
And encourage your endeavour.
You’ll be better when you’re worse,
You must die to live forever !”

(‘Gott ist tot’)

 

 

 

http://youtube.com/watch?v=SZJm88zDuQs

 

 

Tanz der Vampire (Dance of the Vampires) is the musical adaptation of a cold-blooded Polanski film for which I have never cared. It debuted in Vienna in 1997, and has since been performed successfully across central and eastern Europe. Usually described as a musical, it might be better termed a rock opera, since it is sung-through and uses a system of leitmotifs. The invention of the leitmotif is usually credited to Richard Wagner, so it is wholly appropriate that Jim Steinman, ‘the Wagner of rock’, should have scored this.

 

The simple plot of Tanz der Vampire is essentially a reworking of Dracula. The doddering vampire-hunter Professor Abronsius and his young assistant Alfred arrive in a remote Transylvanian village; the locals deny the existence of vampires, despite performing a show-stopper about the glories of garlic. But not only is Graf Krolock (whose name obviously recalls Nosferatu, Graf Orlock) real, he has his sights on Sarah, the inn-keeper’s pretty daughter. In a memorable scene, the Count introduces himself through a skylight while Sarah is taking a bath, and descends to invite her to his castle for a ball. This will be the titular ‘dance of the vampires’, which provides the show’s electrifying climax.

Not only Sarah but also Alfred must choose their path: the seductive Count offers himself to each as lover and mentor, respectively. The first act ends with one the best songs, in which von Krolock tells Alfred to follow his heart and stop relying on ‘a senile fool’:

 

Stay with me and you’ll know love
I’ll heal you of your false ambitions
Leave your boring life behind
Believe in your wildest visions

 

http://youtube.com/watch?v=zfX9B8AFm3c

 

 

Harking back to Frank Langella’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s Lestat, these vampires are undeniably evil, yet also charismatic and elegant. They’re a positive breath of fresh air after all the depressed, wimpy bloodsuckers that have plagued popular culture for so long.

Appropriately for Germanic vampires, they seem to have a thing for Nietzsche: there is an entire song titled ‘Gott ist tot’, for instance. Sarah is told that she will be "better when [she’s] worse", and that she must disregard the social morality inculcated in her: "Everything that they taught you, was nothing but lies ! Everything that they bought you, was nothing but bribes !". Nietzschean also is their obsession with eternal recurrence, a theme of several numbers; and von Krolock’s warning to the Professor that "You must become what you study" paraphrases the famous aphorism about battling monsters.

Like all truly beautiful things, Tanz der Vampire has a streak of romantic melancholy. The Count, like a Buddha, knows that life is a cycle of suffering, and desires which grow by feeding – yet, as he sings in ‘Die Unstillbare Gier’, he is powerless against his endless appetite.

 

Tanz ultilises radically divergent musical styles to underline its thematic dichotomies. Professor Abronsius, whose rationalist hubris ultimately unleashes a plague of vampirism upon the world, has songs that could be from Gilbert and Sullivan. The vampires, by contrast, get rock ballads. Comic, inconsequential patter is contrasted with Wagnerian bombast.

 

The original Count von Krolock was the late, great Steve Barton, who also originated the part of Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, in Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. There is a certain symmetry there, not least in the fact that when a farcical adaptation of Tanz appeared on Broadway, Krolock was played by none other than Michael Crawford. The appalling ‘Dance of the Vampires’ kept most of the songs but little else from the original. Still, it was heartening to hear Crawford’s evil laugh again, and his voice retained the weird, almost Bowie-like quality which helped make his Phantom so memorable.

Later Krolocks such as Thomas Borchert and Kevin Tarte aren’t bad, exactly, but the problem is the same as with Phantom: however good subsequent leads are, the originator of the role is unsurpassable. For one thing, other Counts typically lack Steve Barton’s huge voice and regal bearing. Indeed, the entire Vienna cast had a charm which later productions generally cannot match, though they are much slicker and often showcase impressive effects.

 

When I heard the original cast recording of Tanz, I was wildly impressed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as I have long been a fan of Jim Steinman and the power ballads he penned for Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler et al. I have since been moved to track down numerous cast recordings and DVDs of various productions, including some ultra-rare ones with English subtitles. Despite the Broadway debacle of 2002, I have not lost hope that this magnificent work will eventually get the attention and respect it deserves in the Anglophone world.

 

 By James Bell

 (Below, your author gets into the spirit of things)

 

 

 

 

 

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