Arts & Events

New: The Twice-Over Fall of the House of Usher: A Macabre Double-Bill at S.F. Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday December 09, 2015 - 12:24:00 PM

I have never been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. His macabre stories and morbid sensibility hold no interest for me. I can understand why, historically, they might have appealed to earlier generations, especially, turn-of-the-twentieth-century generations. To me, however, Poe’s writings are, if you’ll pardon the pun, a dead letter. Imagine my chagrin at having to sit through – then write about – not one but two operas based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.  

This double-bill, which opened at the War Memorial Opera House on Tuesday, December 8, and runs through Sunday, December 13, is comprised of Claude Debussy’s unfinished opera La Chute de la Maison Usher, and Gordon Getty’s Usher House. Debussy read with interest the translation of Poe’s story by French poet Charles Baudelaire. Debussy, who had a leaning of his own toward the exotic and mystical, was inspired by Baudelaire’s evocation, in impeccable French, of Poe’s exotically perverse mysticism. So Debussy sketched out a musical draft of an opera based on the Poe-Baudelaire story, working on it intermittently from 1915 to 1917. However, Debussy never completed this opera; and it became the task of the English musicologist Robert Orledge to find a way to piece together Debussy’s scattered sketches and make a short, one-act opera of La Chute de la Maison Usher.  

Where opera is concerned, Debussy’s undisputed masterpiece is, of course, Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck. I have seen several wonderful productions of this opera at the Opéra Comique in Paris, one in 1965 with sets by Jean Cocteau, and one in 1969 with the original sets by Jusseaume. I might also mention a fine 1997 San Francisco Opera production of Pelléas et Mélisande with Frederica von Stade as Mélisande and Simon Keenlyside as Pelléas. With my love of Debussy’s music, I came to La Chute de la Maison Usher hoping the genius of Debussy would somehow work musical miracles on this morbid story. Alas, it didn’t. Oh, there were a few patches, here and there, that featured Debussy’s unique orchestral coloration and tonality, and conductor Lawrence Foster did his best to make this score attractive. There were even one or two moments when vocalists were given some lush passages to sing. On the whole, however, Poe’s turgid prose simply doesn’t hold up, even sung in French. The role of Roderick Usher is here performed by noted baritone Brian Mulligan, who sang with robust tone and fine French diction. Usher’s old friend, simply called L’Ami in Debussy’s libretto, was ably sung by baritone Edward Nelson, who also exhibited excellent French diction. The mysteriously conniving doctor, simply called Le Médecin by Debussy, was sung by tenor Joel Sorensen, whose squeaky voice and poor French diction made him hard to bear. Finally, Lady Madeline, who gets to sing only a few bars of music, was impressively sung by mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Piccolino. As for the staging of this opera, well, it was tricked out with otherworldly video projections filmed by video production designer David Haneke. Fragments of stone walls, a swampy lake, a raven perched on a wall, evoked Poe’s spooky world of Usher. The stage director, David Pountey, tried to make everything eerie, but it just seemed tedious, especially since there’s no action whatsoever, hardly any dialogue, and many lengthy bits of monologue. In the context of Debussy’s oeuvre, La Chute de la Maison Usher is definitely a downer. 

The idea of staging a pairing of Debussy’s La Chute de la Maison Usher with Gordon Getty’s one-act opera Usher House seems to have originated at the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, where this double-bill premiered in June, 2014. Our current San Francisco Opera double-bill is a co-production with Welsh National Opera. Gordon Getty’s Usher House is another telling, in English this time, of the same Poe story, only in this version the role of Lady Madeline is performed by two interpreters – one a dancer, rivetingly performed by Jamielyn Duggan, and one a singer, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Piccolino. Another quirk in Getty’s version of this tale is the fact that he makes Edgar Allan Poe a leading character by identifying him as “L’Ami, the friend.” This role was beautifully sung by tenor Jason Bridges; and Roderick Usher was again robustly sung by Brian Mulligan. Getty, who, like Debussy, wrote his own libretto based on Poe’s story, made the role of the doctor into a far more sinister villain than he is in Debussy’s version. In fact, Getty’s libretto all too neatly divides the characters into three good guys, one unfortunate female victim, and one bad, bad villain. It’s almost a comic-book version. The villainous doctor, here called Doctor Primus, was ably sung by bass Anthony Reed. In Getty’s opera as in Debussy’s, the staging is tricked out with video footage that endlessly moves right and left, left and right, for no apparent reason except to simulate action where, in fact, there is none. Video shots of alleged Usher ancestors dressed in period costumes are occasionally superimposed on the interior shots of Penrhyn Castle in north Wales, presumably to evoke the weight of history on this dying Usher line. The score by Getty is highly percussive. It works all right, but is hardly memorable. The best thing about Getty’s Usher House was the inspired dancing by Jamielyn Duggan.