Review: Nosferatu opera a campy, clever production

The comic opera Nosferatu is on at Glebe St James United Church Saturday evening.

Opera and movies compliment each other well. Both are notable for breeding outsized personalities and vicious competition, not to mention production shenanigans of near-mythic status. But while there have been several movies about opera — Fitzcarraldo, Meeting Venus and A Night at the Opera are just three that stand out — the reverse is rarer.

Kevin Reeves is one of Ottawa’s true Renaissance men: filmmaker, conductor, writer, caricaturist, singer and composer. On Friday night, he presented the world premiere of his new comic chamber opera, Nosferatu, which combines two of Reeves’ loves: vocal music and classic silent movies.

Rather than simply set the story of the 1922 vampire film to music, Reeves instead gives us a surreal “making of” romp that follows the antics of eccentric German director F.W. Murnau, his long suffering cameraman Fritz Wagner, their curiously unsettling star Max Schreck and various other characters as they try to make an avant-garde horror movie in the superstitious backwaters of Slovakia. Reeves’ antagonist is Florence Stoker, widow of Dracula author Bram Stoker, who arrives to accuse Murnau of stealing her late husband’s ideas and stop the filming (she is inexplicably listed as “Frances Stoker” in the program).

The 80-minute, two-act opera is pure camp. Reeves never met a pun he didn’t like, and there are the inevitable jokes involving the words “suck” and “bite”. The peasant extras keep fleeing in terror at the mere mention of the film’s title, and think the lugubrious Shreck is a real vampire (according to film history, this actually happened.)

But beneath all the Wes Anderson-style silliness lies a remarkably solid little composition. While there are no soaring arias or ensemble numbers, Reeves creates shape in his pattering recitatives through complex, shifting rhythms, peppering the score with fleeting canons and fugues. Reeves has a wonderful ear for setting text, and the rise and fall of the vocal lines follow the natural patterns of speech. The instrumental writing — for string quartet, A and bass clarinets, and piano/harpsichord — is especially good: well balanced, subtle, evocative, never trying too hard. There are cleverly arranged quotes and paraphrases from Haydn’s Deutschlandlied, Smetana’s Die Moldau, and Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, among others. Reeves should delve into chamber music more often.  

Among the cast of local singers, baritone Ryan Hofman as the cameraman Wagner, soprano Rachael Jewell as Murnau’s leading lady, and tenor Grayson Nesbitt as her co-star and paramour, all stood out for their acting skills, comedic timing and clear, characterful singing. As Schreck, baritone Luc Lalonde sang well, but seemed content to let his impressive makeup job do all the acting for him. Tenor Corey Arnold was similarly lacking in intensity and energy as Murnau; he has a habit of letting his gaze wander blankly, never focusing on his co-performers, the conductor or the audience. In contrast, chorister Ilene McKenna stole the show as the star-struck village babushka, complete with pitch-perfect Mitteleuropa accent.

The show would probably benefited from a few more rehearsals; the members of Seventeen Voyces who made up the chorus struggled with their parts, coming in early, late, or not at all. And the staging seemed slapdash and last minute, with clumsy blocking and awkward entrances and exits. While great pains were taken to reproduce Nosferatu’s iconic look, this attention to detail didn’t extend to other elements. Florence Stoker was in her mid-60s when she locked horns with Murnau, hardly the shrill, vampy flapper we see shimmying onstage. And Murnau was famously clean-shaven, so it was jarring to watch Arnold play the director while sporting a modern, full-grown beard.

There’s one more performance of Nosferatu, Saturday evening at 7:30 at St. James United Church in the Glebe.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.