STOCKHOLM — Curious that it took 120 years for Dracula to reach the stage of a major opera company. Now the indestructible tale of the Transylvanian transplant to London has been made into a gloomily entertaining evening of music-theatre by the Royal Swedish Opera, although theatre-music might represent more accurately the priority.
The composer is Victoria Borisova-Ollas, 47, Russian-born and Swedish-based, not that any national aesthetic emerges in her generally economical score. We heard evocative trills, portentous chordal sequences, spooky bells and a fair quota nothing from the orchestra when the singers (sometimes speaking) had the floor.
No use of leitmotif was detectable, despite what one would suppose to be ample opportunity for musical expression of evil, redemption, life, death and so on. Nor were there many solos or ensembles with stand-alone potential. Possibly Borisova-Ollas judged that such operatic complications would get in the way of telling the story.
Which was considerably modified — as far as I could tell. While I probably enjoyed an advantage over many spectators in this opulent edifice of 1899 in actually having read Bram Stoker’s iconic (though damnably ill-written) horror novel, I was distinctly in the minority in having almost no comprehension of the Swedish surtitles. Yes, my fault for smugly expecting Swedish and English side-by-side, but such duality is common in European houses (including the Lithuanian National Opera, where I saw a bit of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi less than a week earlier).
The main transformation is of the title character from an irredeemably evil predator to a poor chap who cannot get over the suicide centuries earlier of his beloved wife Elisabetha (an invention of the librettists Kristian Benkö and Claes Peter Hellwig) and resents in particular the denial of her burial in holy ground. We see this haunting figure from the past (played on Nov. 14 by the resonant contralto Maria Sanner) at the outset and are meant to understand that Mina (soprano Elisabeth Meyer) represents something of a reincarnation, at least as far as the count is concerned. Indeed, Dracula (the sturdy baritone Ola Eliasson) and Mina blossom as romantic leads in a love duet at the beginning of Act 2.
In some respects the protagonist of Stoker’s epistolary novel, Mina is even more so in this feminist overhaul. She is the one who dispatches Dracula with the proverbial stake through the heart — not to eradicate him but to give him the Flying-Dutchman-like redemption he has been seeking (rather oddly, by sucking blood). With the same stroke she liberates herself from conventional morality. Imagine that. A contemporary opera unsympathetic to Victorian culture.
This new stress on Mina tends to marginalize the gentlemen (including Mina’s feckless and ailing husband, Jonathan Harker, played by tenor Joel Annmo) who are Dracula’s staunch opponents in the novel. Nevertheless, the librettists have seen fit to include them in the ample cast. Most distinctive is the hypnotist/scientist Van Helsing (bass-baritone Lars Arvidson), who performs a circus-like public demonstration of mesmerism with the rat-eating madman Renfield (tenor Jonas Degerfeldt).
Lucy, Dracula’s first female victim, is also part of the scenario. As played by soprano Cecilia Nanneson she adds a touch of innocence to the grim proceedings, playing croquet with her mother and accepting delivery of sequential marriage proposals. Several picturesque elements from Stoker are retained, such as the early assault on Jonathan in Dracula’s castle by three resident female vampires.
This sequence, involving a bed turned upright and made to rotate, was one of a few old-fashioned mechanical special effects that cannot have been easy or cheap to realize. Much of the show (directed by Linus Fellbom) had a distinctly pre-digital, Barnum-and-Bailey feel. Dracula (or his athletic double, played by actor Lars Bethke) flew when necessary. Stage smoke was plentiful and giant bats materialized on cue.
The chorus made a dramatic entry in Act 2, carrying torches and pitchforks. Wait a minute. Was this Dracula or Frankenstein? There were also some bloodsucking ballet of unclear narrative relevance.
One could easily dismiss such diversions and cluck about the predictable feminist slant on the story. In truth, Stoker’s text is too poor as literature to be revered as sacrosanct. Like Gaston Leroux’s comparably inadequate The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula found its first true home in the cinema. There might yet be a better opera to be made of Dracula, something more psychological and less showy. In the meantime, this one, comprising only two hours, intermission excluded, will do.
It helped that conductor Karen Kamensek balanced the sounds (natural and amplified) to good effect and created a feeling of momentum in a relatively scattershot score. I have not mentioned the sets and costumes of Dan Potra, all certifiably Victorian, with heavy drapery sometimes serving as a backdrop. Funny: When an opera is new, appropriate sets and costumes are not only permitted, they are expected. Works of the standard repertoire, on the other hand, must be updated and/or conceptually mangled, on pain of professional disgrace. The logic continues to elude me.
The last performance of Dracula is on Dec. 7. Tickets are tight. Bear in mind that the sun sets early in Stockholm. Scary!