It is not the first time that vampires have taken centre-stage in an opera (see Der Vampyr, by Heinrich Marschner), but the Stockholm Royal Opera is the first theatre in the world to present a work based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. The idea of the work was born with the two librettists, Kristian Benkö and Claes Peter Hellwig, who chose Dracula because they were fascinated by the iconic, mythological character. The narrative structure reflects the original, but the epistolary form of Bram Stoker's novel is turned into a series of short scenes that dissolve into one another in a rather cinematographic way.

Ola Eliasson (Dracula) and Elisabeth Meyer (Minna) © Carl Thorborg
Ola Eliasson (Dracula) and Elisabeth Meyer (Minna)
© Carl Thorborg

The libretto focuses on the relationship between Mina Murray and Count Dracula, exploring his "human" side and her love for him. Count Dracula is portrayed as a symbol of both the inner darkness of the soul and the freedom from societal conventions. Mina both loses and emancipates herself: she is willing to join the "dark forces", and with this choice she discovers a new autonomy and agency, free from the strict rules imposed on a woman in Victorian England. Her stepping out of her turn-of-the-century costume and walking off the stage barefoot, in modern undergarments, is a strong image of her emancipation.

Composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas, born in Belarus, but living in Sweden for the last 25 years, accepted the challenge of composing her first opera after some hesitation. She is an acclaimed composer of orchestral works, with her few excursions into vocal repertoire being mainly choral compositions. Her approach to Dracula has been restrained: the orchestral fabric is often quite thin in comparison to her previous orchestral works, leaving the singers dominating the scene with their vocal lines. Some of the recitatives and duets are a cappella, with no accompaniment at all. The vocal lines themselves are not traditionally melodic; there are no "earworms" in Borisova-Ollas' work. It was strangely reminiscent of pre-Baroque opera, a sort of pleasant recitar cantando.

The parts where the composer truly shines are the orchestral introductions, the dances and the choruses; the music in the death scenes was intense, emotional and very effective. Church bells and organ music are ubiquitous, helping to create a Gothic atmosphere. The audio experience was enhanced by recorded sound and the occasional amplification of voices, broadcast by loudspeakers disseminated throughout the theatre for a spooky effect during the most horrific scenes. 

Jon Nilsson (Quincey), Sanna Gibbs (Lucy), Lars Arvidson (Van Helsing) and Johan Edholm (Dr Seward) © Carl Thorborg
Jon Nilsson (Quincey), Sanna Gibbs (Lucy), Lars Arvidson (Van Helsing) and Johan Edholm (Dr Seward)
© Carl Thorborg

The production, with the direction and lighting of Linus Fellbom and the costumes and scenography of Dan Potra (born in Transylvania!), were breathtaking: giant bats, Victorian costumes, terrifying vampires, horror scenes and plenty of blood. Remarkable special effects were employed, from a realistic mystic fog used to create the right atmosphere, to seemingly self-animated spears and daggers, to dancers flying across the stage in horrific, other-worldly outfits. The scene changes were swift and helped move the action along, keeping the audience hooked. The overall result tended to be on the kitsch side but, on the other hand, Dracula, and the whole of Gothic literature, is committed to an aesthetic ideal akin to kitsch.

The singers were all very good and suited to their part. Ola Eliasson (Dracula) and Elisabeth Meyer (Mina) were committed and gave emotional performances in key duets. When Mina killed Dracula, his death scene in particular was intense and moving. Joel Annmo was convincing as Mina's husband, sick and feeble after his visit at Dracula's castle in Transylvania. He was also involved in one of the most spectacular scenes when, in the castle, he was attacked in the middle of the night by vampires crawling out of his bed, which started twirling in the air – an astounding special effect.

Joel Annmo (Jonathan) © Carl Thorborg
Joel Annmo (Jonathan)
© Carl Thorborg

Lucy, Mina's friend and Dracula's main victim, was Sanna Gibbs, perfectly cast with her red hair (hinting to her being "the rebel"), and a brilliant, high and clear soprano; while the trio of her suitors, Jon Nilsson (Quincey), Kristian Flor (Holmwood) and Johan Edholm (Dr Seward), served as an enjoyable "comic relief" with their exaggerated, gallant gestures. The "scientist" Van Helsing was a booming Lars Arvidson, while Jonas Degerfeldt, as Renfield, Dracula's follower and a vampire himself, gave us some of the finest singing and acting of the evening.

The Stockholm Royal Opera's efforts to produce an event were extremely successful. The audience responded with enthusiasm to the invitation to dress up in themed clothing: the usually restrained Swedish public showed up in a blaze of black lace, red capes, Victorian gowns and fake blood; yours truly was sporting the most tasteful vampire fangs! The building itself was transformed by video projections, while all the ushers were in standard-issue vampire costumes. The result was a frightfully enjoyable evening.

****1