October is a fitting time for the Vortex to premiere Chad Salvata's opera 'Vampyress,' about a ghoulish countess who killed 600 women so she could bathe in their blood


The Vortex, through Oct. 31

Running time: 1 hr, 30 min

The countess radiates a cold beauty, her fine features chiseled as from marble, her skin as pale as the moon and not a degree warmer than its surface. But her beauty isn't nearly as cold as her blood, as becomes shockingly clear when, at the conclusion of a play performed just for her (a variation on Red Riding Hood, with all the tale's sexual undercurrents pulled lasciviously to the surface), the countess approaches the actress who played Rosehead, the virginal heroine pursued by the wolfish Redlick, and shows her appreciation to the young woman by thrusting a dagger's blade into her belly and then, as she collapses on the floor, spitting on her dying body.

October being the month for ghouls, it's a most fitting time for Vortex Repertory Company to premiere this latest opera by composer Chad Salvata. Based on the life and legend of Erzsebet Bathori, a Hungarian countess reputed to have killed more than 600 women in the early 17th century, Vampyress offers the tale of a cruel aristocrat whose obsessive desire to maintain her physical beauty drives her to murder young females that she might bathe in their blood. Bathori may not be the literal monster that the work's title suggests, but her disregard for human life is so unnatural, her murders so extensive, she seems not of our race. And the fact that her crimes are committed in the name of beauty, to preserve her "perfect face, like a maid of four and twenty," only heightens her perversity.

In telling her story, Salvata, director Bonnie Cullum, and the Vortex team draw on associations with other tales of midnight creatures and blood lust. The work opens with that erotic spin on Red Riding Hood, casting a voracious lupine shadow over the proceedings. An outsized oval mirror dominates the set by designer Ann Marie Gordon, calling to mind another royal fixated on her looks who dared murder to remain the fairest in the land. Indeed, Salvata's Bathori combines the vanity and villainy of Snow White's evil queen with the inhuman thirst for blood of Bram Stoker's evil count. And like Dracula, Bathori has her nemesis, a Van Helsing who tracks her to her lair with the aim of ending her unholy reign of terror. He is Matthias, king of Hungary, who makes a pointed visit to Erzsebet's castle when the body count swells to a point that he can no longer ignore. The opera ends with a showdown between the two, although it's hardly the dramatic confrontation that concludes Dracula or most other vampire tales. It takes place quickly, even abruptly, with less time devoted to it than any of the three plays within a play or dark rituals performed.

Vampyress seems much more about mood and Bathori's bloody desire, with Salvata's signature techno-beat providing a menacing bassline from which erupts atmospheric fountains of Eastern European and Middle Eastern melody; Roy Taylor's soundscapes of distant children's voices and distorted noise adding an unsettling note of dislocation and threat; and Jason Amato's strobe flashes stabbing at our eyes and crimson light steeping the stage in a bloody wash. Blair Hurry's extravagant costumes, blending Elizabethan pageantry and contemporary S&M wear with a liberal exposure of female flesh, enhance the air of decadence in which Bathori wallows. This is a world feeding on its own corruption.

The ensemble of seven actresses bravely commit themselves to this place of danger and darkness, descending into depravity and surrendering all modesty as necessary. All acquit themselves honorably (as paradoxical as that may be), but it is Melissa Vogt's show. Erzsebet bestrides this opera as Richard III does his Shakespearean tragedy, a tyrant mercilessly savaging all in her path to satisfy her own wicked whims, and Vogt gets that. Her porcelain skin glowing, she transforms her lovely features into a mask of viciousness, of monomania, and ultimately of madness. The final image of her, eyes wild, rivulets of blood streaming down her face and her naked body, leaves us where all good October tales do: awash in horror.

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Vampyress, Chad Salvata, Vortex Repertory Company, Bonnie Cullum, Erzsebet Bathori, Melissa Vogt, Blair Hurry, Jason Amato, Ann Marie Gordon, Roy Taylor

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