The House of Usher, minus the fall

Classical Music Critic

The Fall of the House of Usher” is Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest prose work, a gloomy, murky story of a mysterious man, his even more mysterious sister and the creepy house that has been their family home for generations.

Although only a short story, there is more than enough meat on the bone to use this tale as the basis of an opera, and there have been multiple efforts to do so, not least the incomplete adaptation by Debussy.

In 1987 American composer Philip Glass, working with librettist Arthur Yourinks, created a short chamber opera based on Poe’s story. The result is spendidly compact — five singers, 13 instrumentalists and a 90-minute duration. It’s the first production in Andreas Mitisek’s first season as Chicago Opera Theater general director, and it is co-produced by Long Beach Opera, where Mitisek also serves as artistic and general director.

I attended the second performance, a Sunday matinee, where Mitisek spoke for several minutes before the opera began giving perhaps the best fund-raising speech I’ve heard in a very long while. His wit had the audience laughing again and again, and he took even his own misfortune (he sported crutches and had an enormous cast on his left leg) and turning it into a joke about how “break a leg” represents theatrical good luck.

There was then an extended pause as Mitisek left the stage for the pit, where he conducted the chamber ensemble. From the very beginning you knew that here was a perfect match of story and composer. Glass is a master of the hypnotic, the moody-broody, the ominous. His repetitive lines drew the musical equivalent of Poe’s prose obsessiveness.

COT has done a fine job of casting. Baritone Lee Gregory is gripping as William (the unnamed narrator of the short story). His direct, declarative style suits the music and his ability to inject both strength and emotion in even short passages is notable. The emotional trajectory of his character, beginning without frets and ending with a harrowing escape from almost certain death, is superbly realized.

Ryan MacPherson offers a fevered Roderick Usher. He’s a man tormented, but his ailments and his anguish are left mostly unexplained, helping to create a sense of dread. MacPherson doesn’t always sing with conventional beauty, yet his expressiveness never wanes.

The strange and mysterious Madeline Usher is gamely sung by Suzan Hanson. “Ah, it’s her” you think whenever she comes on stage as she’s given no text, only vocalising on “ah.” She deftly creates a character both slinky and scary. She’s a pivotal presence whose allure is dangerous.

Bass-baritone Nick Shelton suitably hovers about when he’s not creating a deep yet obsequious sound as the servant, and tenor Jonathan Mack is a suitably off-putting doctor who can’t diagnose Roderick but is willing to inject him all the same.

Mitisek paces the music well, although there are times when you think the transitions are awkwardly realized.

The stage dressing is sparse yet effective. A wall composed of big, chunky stones anchors the set at the back of the stage and several smaller stone walls on wheels are pushed hither and thither as the action requires. This pushing and pulling is effected by a troop of supernumeraries in goth dress. If these young goths are meant to represent the gloom and foreboding that permeates the Poe story on the page, they certainly fail. They are more amusing than scary, but in the end matter little.

The biggest problem with this production is that director Ken Cazan treats it as a gay love story. Repression of forbidden love might have been persuasive if the story had been placed in the 19th century setting Poe gave it, but from the moment the action starts we knew we are in our own time: an iPad, numerous credit card transactions, an airplane journey and so on. It’s not that we live in an era lacking in sexual repression, but it’s a big stretch to imagine that both William and Roderick suffer similarly. It’s also probably a bad idea to have included the extended sex scene. Not because sex is shocking onstage, but because unless done very, very well it’s just boring.

Cazan’s treatment of Madeline only muddies matters, rather than illuminating them. It’s not just that we are often unclear when she’s really present and when she’s only present in Roderick’s mind, but the staging can easily be interpreted as incestuous. This is certainly the case at the very end. In Poe, Madeline’s body falls upon her brother’s, they both die and the house collapses. But Cazan not only makes the brother-sister death unclear, there is no attempt whatever to depict the crumbling home, save having the goths physically abuse William.

This is a House of Usher, certainly, but The Fall is strangely left out.