Two Fine Manifestations of The Fall of the House of Usher

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Gordon Getty, Usher House; Claude Debussy (ed. Robert Orledge), La chute de la maison Usher: Soloists, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lawrence Foster (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 15.6.2014 (PCG)

Usher House
Jason Bridges (tenor: Edgar Allen Poe),
Benjamin Bevan (baritone: Roderick Usher),
Kevin Short (bass: Doctor Primus),
Anna Gorbachyova (soprano: Madeline),
Joanna Jeffries (dancer: Madeline)

La chute de la maison Usher
Anna Gorbachyova (soprano: Madeline),
Mark le Brocq (tenor: Doctor),
William Dazeley (baritone: Friend),
Robert Hayward (baritone: Roderick Usher)

Debussy never intended that Pelléas et Mélisande should be his only opera. The form fascinated him, and he continued to tinker with the score throughout his later life, as well as passing under consideration a number of new projects. However the only such project which produced anything of substance was his sketched setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic horror The fall of the House of Usher. At the time of his death he had completed most of the opening scene and several extracts from later in the work, including the conclusion; this haphazard approach was not so surprising as it may seem, as he had adopted a similar procedure in Pelléas, writing the Fourth Act love duet before anything else in the score. The sketches were in various states of completion, and it was not until the 1970s that an attempt was made to put them into performable condition by Chilean scholar Juan Allende-Blin. This resulted in an LP recording of some half-hour of music, originally produced with full notes, texts and translations. These were preserved (in miniscule type) in the subsequent full-price CD reissue, but this hardly achieved any circulation outside France despite the presence of full English translations. After several years of fruitless searching and unproductive ordering I finally ran a copy of this CD to earth in a box of deletions – although how a disc that had never seemed to be available could suddenly be deleted still baffles me. A couple of years later EMI reissued the recording again at mid-price, but with their habitual disregard for the needs of purchasers they provided minimal notes, and no texts and translations; which meant that a considerable amount of the reconstructed music, where spoken French dialogue was declaimed over the orchestra (in the absence of any vocal lines composed by Debussy) was rendered totally meaningless. The situation was not helped by the fact that Debussy, understandably flummoxed by Poe’s failure until the final pages of his story to provide any dialogue for his characters, had perforce to write most of the libretto himself; and what he did produce considerably altered Poe’s original. Actually Poe works extremely well in Beaudelaire’s French translation, less flamboyantly over-the-top than his overheated English.

What we were given here as the second half of a double bill of operas on The Fall of the House of Usher was considerably different from the Allende-Blin version on the recording, since we here heard in its UK première a new realisation by Robert Orledge. This “reconstruction and orchestration” gave us considerably more of Debussy’s sketches than formerly, with more extensive development of the material in the central scenes; and the orchestral textures were more filled out, to give a more authentically Debussian impression rather than the more threadbare sound in Allende-Blin’s version. Indeed, although the work clearly remained a torso rather than a completed work (the death of Madeline was baldly announced rather than staged), it gave the strong suggestion of a work largely completed rather than abandoned, and was eminently stage-worthy. The settings, consisting of filmed backdrops of various arrangements of pillars and cornices, may irreverently have occasionally suggested a section of a hardware store; but they were nonetheless atmospheric (especially the opening deserted seashore), and the production by David Pountney served excellently to paper over any cracks in the dramaturgy.

It was excellently sung, too. Robert Hayward as Roderick Usher, his role considerably expanded from the Allende-Blin version, dominated the stage whenever he appeared, his descent into madness fully realised with a voice of power and authority. William Dazeley as the ‘friend’ was nicely sympathetic, and also displayed plenty of reserves of strength in the more strenuous passages (Orledge’s orchestration was sometimes perhaps over-heavy in climaxes). Mark le Brocq as the Doctor (a tenor here rather than a baritone as with Allende-Blin) was best of all in his declamation of the French text, and Anna Gorbachyova made her mark with her brief song at the very beginning of the opera (Allende-Blin placed this later during the action). She also was properly menacing as the ghost of Madeline, the projection of her baleful glance dominating the stage during the closing bars. But there did remain one fundamental problem with the score, even in this new realisation. Debussy had completed the text for the opera, but vocal lines in his sketches were often missing and the attempt to fit the words to the existing music sometimes resulted in a rapid and somewhat mechanical declamation of the libretto which was particularly problematic in the final pages where the singers often had to resort to shouting the words over the ever more excited orchestral turmoil.

The operatic torso was coupled with a complete treatment of the same subject by Gordon Getty under the title Usher House, here receiving its world première in a co-production with San Francisco Opera where it is scheduled to be staged next year. Getty, who has constructed his own libretto, made a valiant attempt to impose a more logical structure onto Poe’s original, furnishing some explanations for example onto the origins of the house itself (and incidentally explaining its collapse at the end) as well as past background on the characters. This involved the creation of two new characters: Doctor Primus, Madeline’s sinister physician who eventually is revealed as the incarnation of the original Usher: and Edgar Allen Poe himself, acting both as narrator as in the original story and also as a romantic interest in his relationship to Madeline. These additions and explanations worked well, but they also had a downside in the result that (as with the Debussy) there was rather too much text to be delivered as sort of recitative over the expressive orchestral backdrop. One longed for more lyrical expansion, but such moments were relatively rare; one also noticed that the English surtitles did not always agree with what the singers were delivering from the stage. Possibly the differences were the result of alterations during rehearsal, and one might tentatively suggest that some further amendment and pruning of the text might be beneficial without jeopardising the rationale behind the plot.

Anna Gorbachyova again undertook the singing in the role of Madeline, but her contribution was hardly more substantial than in the Debussy setting. It seemed odd that her poem The haunted palace, included in part by Debussy, was omitted here, since it might have provided the lyrical material missing elsewhere; but for the earlier scenes of her appearance, she was portrayed by a dancer and therefore silent. Benjamin Bevan was resonant as Roderick Usher (he had less forceful orchestral accompaniment to contend with from Getty than from Debussy) and Jason Bridges was forceful and delicate by turns as the author/narrator. The final scene, more extended than in Debussy, made a strong impact in the hands of these two protagonists. Even stronger in tone was Kevin Short, a solid bass with a massively black sound which fully justified the emphasis given to his character. But at the end of the plot which he had contrived, he just seemed to vanish from the stage, which seemed rather disappointing.

The filmed settings for the Debussy were even more spectacularly successful in the Getty. Careful thought had obviously gone into the selected scenes from Penrhyn Castle, and the video designer David Haneke displayed a real flair for reflecting the atmosphere of the score. The very opening, with the viewer drawn into a carriage approaching the Usher House, immediately grabbed the attention even before the music had started with the realism of the illusion conveyed. Indeed when the orchestra did enter, there was almost a suggestion of an atmospheric film score simply accompanying the visual images on stage. This however was only a fleeting misapprehension, as the music rapidly developed an independent character of its own in which the live characters blended almost seamlessly into the filmed background. This imaginative use of projections (echoing a suggestion made by John Culshaw in Ring Resounding as long ago as the 1960s) was a real revelation in showing just how successful the technique can be if it is done as well as this. One would now like to see such back projections used in other productions, especially those which portray nature in a manner which has seemed to become a closed book to so many modern directors. It was a far cry from David Pountney’s usual style, and it worked superbly. The eye and ear were constantly enchanted, in fact, and the score seemed to display a distinct progress from Getty’s earlier opera Plump Jack (which I reviewed on CD last year for this site) both in its sense of dramatic pacing and in the greater unity of the musical whole. Unlike Plump Jack, which was written in a piecemeal fashion over a number of years, Usher House progressed inexorably from its atmospheric opening to its overwhelming conclusion. One hopes that the production will soon find its way onto video (possibly during its run in San Francisco?) as both an enchantment in its own right and an example to others.

Both operas were conducted with real feeling by Lawrence Foster, who might to advantage have tempered some of the more strenuous outbursts in the Debussy but who otherwise never put a foot wrong and conjured up some real excitement in what might possibly have been a dangerously slow series of events. The players too responded with warmth and enthusiasm to this totally unfamiliar music.

I should perhaps mention that this review is based on the second performance of the double bill (I was otherwise engaged two days earlier on the opening night – see my review for this site of the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales in the Brahms German Requiem). Unfortunately the double bill is only being given once more in the current WNO season, on 20 June in Birmingham. It deserves to be revived; the audience at this afternoon performance was substantial and enthusiastic.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 thoughts on “Two Fine Manifestations of <i>The Fall of the House of Usher</i>”

  1. Whole-hearted agreement with these reviews. I was unfamiliar with both scores, but enjoyed the Debussy particularly. I agree the most strongly with Mr. Godfrey in his praise for the use of the projection for both works but particularly for the Getty piece, and the collapse of the mansion was outstanding in every way. This projection is worth seeing for its own sake, and should work wonderfully for The Ring and the conclusion of Tristan und Isolde.

  2. I must thank Mr Mills for his support. Indeed one would love to see Wagner produced in this way. Initially I was sceptical about whether the live performers would blend into the projected images (which were superbly photographed), but in the event this proved to be no problem at all.

    It is simply a pity that the production is not be seen again during the current season (or the next). One really hopes for a revival at some time, although San Francisco will be experience the double bill next autumn.


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