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Review: For L.A. Opera's Halloween 'Vampyr,' capes, camp and a beautifully eerie new soundtrack

Review: For L.A. Opera's Halloween 'Vampyr,' capes, camp and a beautifully eerie new soundtrack
Matthew Aucoin conducts a new chamber music score by composer Joby Talbot for Carl Theodor Dreyer's surreal 1932 masterwork "Vampyr," this year's L.A. Opera mash-up of cinema and opera at the Theatre at Ace Hotel. (Lawrence K. Ho for LA Opera)

On Saturday night, the ornate Spanish Gothic interior of the Theatre at Ace Hotel was bathed in blood-red light as vampires in flowing back capes whisked through the lobby sipping cocktails and taking selfies.

In masks, top hats and plastic fangs (as well as plenty of black street clothes), a sizeable crowd turned out at the Ace to attend a screening of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 horror classic “Vampyr,” followed by a Halloween party.

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Presented by Los Angeles Opera as part of its Off Grand series, the film was accompanied by a live performance of new music by British composer Joby Talbot. In a nod to the evening’s campy Halloween vibe, L.A. Opera artist in residence Matthew Aucoin wore a floor-length black cape to conduct the score’s world premiere.

Concert screenings of classic black-and-white horror films accompanied by live orchestral music are fast becoming a Halloween tradition. Like annual December performances of “The Nutcracker” or “The Messiah,” they are reliable crowd pleasers for companies like L.A. Opera, which in recent years has presented the 1931 Bela Lugosi film “Dracula” (with live music composed and performed by Philip Glass with the Kronos Quartet), the 1922 film “Nosferatu” (with a new score by Aucoin) and the 1946 classic “La Belle et la Bête” (more Glass), all at the Ace. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which for years has performed music from classic soundtracks as the films play at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall, is presenting “Nosferatu” on Halloween night with live organ music by Clark Wilson, who in past years has played to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Cat and the Canary.”

Talbot was a smart choice to continue this tradition and expand the repertoire. An innately theatrical, cinematic composer, he has written for the stage, concert hall and screen (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Closed Circuit”). When I saw the world premiere of his first opera, “Everest,” at the Dallas Opera in 2015, I felt as though I were devouring a riveting blockbuster in a movie theater.

Dreyer’s “Vampyr” is surreal and dreamlike. The protagonist, Alan Gray, seems to float in and out of eerie scenarios and his own physical body. For this production, the movie’s efficient German dialogue was extracted from Wolfgang Zeller’s original score. The result is a superbly well-blended mash-up of new music and original dialogue and sound effects.

Talbot’s score also effectively blends the old and new, striking a balance between nostalgic, romantic motifs and unmistakably modern material. The score calls for a 15-piece chamber orchestra and relies on driving percussion, expressive harp playing and mesmerizing bass clarinet and muted trumpet melodies to infuse wordless scenes with dramatic intensity.

To give voice to inexplicably levitating skulls and disembodied shadows, Talbot smartly incorporates a mezzo-soprano (Taylor Raven) into this sound world. Her warm “ahhhhs” were occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, but they also worked like an instrument, rounding out the ensemble’s timbre.

Taking a bow at the end of the show, Talbot also appeared in a cape, adopting the fashion trend of the night.

“I wish ‘world premiere’ and ‘Halloween party’ went together more often,” Aucoin tweeted Saturday night. It appears a sizable number of caped and fanged Angelenos agree.

‘Vampyr’

Where: The Theatre at Ace Hotel, 933 S. Broadway, Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 31

Tickets: $19-$89

Info: laopera.org

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