Monthly Archive for: ‘December, 2015’

The Fall of the House of Usher – two one-act Operas

A Menacing Raven Looms

usher_slideshow2The San Francisco Opera last night offered the American premier of Gordon Getty’s one-act Usher House paired with Claude Debussy’s one-act The Fall of the House of Usher. This is a co-production with the Welsh National Opera, whose debut of the project preceded. These are two of over a dozen attempts to bring one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous short stories to the opera stage. None have gained enough traction to be included in the world opera repertoire. Neither Getty’s nor Debussy’s are likely to become stars, but properly produced, as these are, they provide interesting and contrasting riffs on the same material and have enough interest to carry an evening.

The source story is revered more for its atmospherics than its plot, which makes it a good basis for opera. The story is that the Usher family is an ancient and distinguished one, but only adult twins remain to carry on the line. Crazy twin Madeline dies. Sickly twin Roderick dies. The magnificent family edifice, literal and figurative, collapses. End of story.

Both operas have four principals and no chorus or supernumeraries, save a dancer representing the living Madeline in Getty’s piece. Though the characters are parallel in the two, only SF Opera stalwart Brian Mulligan, playing Roderick, has a major role in both. That of Madeline is terribly underdeveloped by both librettists, who are the composers as well. The fact that she is dead is no excuse for not creating a greater role for a single female voice. Opera is a medium of many artificial conventions, and singing ectoplasm is clearly within bounds.  Both use Poe’s famous Raven as a symbol of destruction – Getty’s more in visual imagery, and Debussy’s in text.

The real star of the shows is the back-projected video designed by David Haneke. Absent set or props, the visual field is left to projections and the performers. The constant is a video screen spanning the width of the stage. The variable is two smaller, mobile screens downstage from the wide screen. The projections might at first seem like a budget cheat, but they prove extremely versatile, producing effects not possible with conventional staging. The definition is so clear and the images so strong as to produce an unimaginable three-dimensional effect so that singers seem to be moving around actual settings. The effective use of this technology portends of things to come.

Getty’s Usher House opens the evening. Its music is post-modern eclectic – very lush and sonorous, with deep strings and warm brass. It is distinguished by frequent punctuation from xylophone family members (there are five such instruments in the orchestra), usually in traditional harmonics, but dissonant at unsettled times. While the music is pretty, it would improve with greater dynamics usually associated with an opera score. The vocal line is of less interest. Most vocalization is in the recitative mode, not allowing singers’ voices to shine. The strongest singer is probably tenor Jason Bridges, who voice penetrated the conditions well. Anthony Reed provides a good realization of Dr. Primus.

The libretto is highly literate, perhaps to a fault. Unlike many that are criticized for repetition and flaccidity, Getty’s brims with detailed references to a mythic story-within-the story called The Mad Tryst that proceeds too quickly to process well. Further, the didactic nature of some of the tracts inhibits lyricism. Getty avers that he hasn’t seriously read Poe’s story since childhood and didn’t want to be to guided by it. Thus, he strays from the straight line but with no ill effect. One successful conceit is that the unnamed “visitor” in the story becomes Poe himself, which adds extra meaning to the role.

In Usher House the mobile screens are on opposing sides of the stage, seemingly hinged to the main screen, creating a triptych. We see numerous scenes, mostly elegant interiors with highly polished wood that gleams on the screen and arches of such depth you expect the performers to walk through them. The use of panning, zooming, having ancestral spirits floating about, and having subjects moving within picture frames on walls all create a powerful visual element.

Debussy’s Fall of the House of Usher or La Chute de la Maison Usher honors Poe more closely. The music is late Impressionist with a distinctively French sound and more melody carried by the singers. Like Getty’s, it is melodious without memorable arias, but the modal expression is arioso, and climactic dynamics are more dramatic. With flowing lyrics, voices receive fuller tone. Brian Mulligan benefits from the higher tessitura of Debussy’s Roderick, resulting in a strong depiction. Edward Nelson as L’Ami and Joel Sorensen as Le Medecin, both fill their roles well. As with the Getty work, there are no ensemble pieces to provide diversity or complex vocal arrangements.usher_slideshow1

The visual projections in Debussy’s piece are black and white with an abundance of the symbolic bases of stone columns or other repeating figures filling the screens. While not as varied or appealing as those of the Getty piece, the mobile screens are physically ported about, and combined with camera zooming, create a powerful sense of anxiety and claustrophobia.

Notwithstanding flaws in both works, many opera aficionados and lovers of Poe or the macabre will enjoy this presentation.

The double bill The Fall of the House of Usher plays at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco through December 13.

 

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