Debussy’s unfinished opera takes Annelies Van Parys down a fruitful Berlin path

GermanyGermany Van Parys/Debussy, Usher: Soloists, Members of the Staatskapelle Berlin and its Orchestral Academy / Marit Strindlund (conductor). Alter Orchesterprobensaal, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 18.1.2020. (MB)

(c) Martin Argyroglo

Director, Set designs, Lighting – Philippe Quesne
Costumes – Christin Haschke
Sound design – Sébastien Alazet

Roderick Usher – David Oštrek
The Friend – Martin Gerke
Lady Madeline – Ruth Rosenfeld
Doctor – Dominic Kraemer

What to do with an unfinished artwork? It is not, perhaps, the right question: different works or part-works, different circumstances, different performers, different listeners, will have different answers. Right or wrong, however, we continue to ask it, and at that level of generalisation or abstraction, there is more than one possibility. One can perform a fragment, with or without reconstruction. The answer to whether to reconstruct will depend both on inclination and on possibility: the condition of fragments will be such that what one saw or heard would make little sense without considerable intervention. Tradition will also play a part: the much-abused Süssmayr completion of Mozart’s Requiem – to my mind, though not to many others, unfairly abused – has a standing, a familiarity, a performance tradition of its own. It also retains a mystery at its heart – and probably always will. If original writing is to be involved, does one attempt pastiche or something more adventurous, more personal? Where does this leave already fraught issues of fidelity in performance? Is that opposition a helpful one at all, begging far too many questions of its own?

Having raised such questions, I shall now move them a little to one side, neither forgetting them nor retaining my focus upon them. In that, I am echoing my own experience of having attended this LINDEN 21 performance of Usher in the old orchestral rehearsal room of the Berlin State Opera. What we saw and heard is not a reconstruction of Debussy’s La Chute de la maison Usher such as was first seen staged on the main stage at this very house in 1979 (courtesy of Juan Allende Blin’s reconstruction). Is it a completion? It depends what one means, but that was not in itself the point; this is not primarily an evening of metatheatre, nor does it seem intended to be. Better, then to say what it is: a chamber opera in three short acts, coming to about ninety minutes in total, by Annelies Van Parys and Gaea Schoeters, incorporating Debussy’s music and outline(s), themselves founded on Edgar Allen Poe’s story. (I suggest the plural ‘outlines’, given that Debussy wrote three libretti, each considering the story from a different standpoint.)

What especially interested me in what I heard was a particular aspect of the relationship between music by the two composers. It was not so much that I could not tell where one ended and the other began, as that it was in general very clear indeed where the one (Van Parys) had begun, without that sounding incongruent or even in a different voice. Debussy’s music evidently fascinates Van Parys. I have written before of her chamber version of Pelléas et Mélisande, as performed by English Touring Opera in 2015. Usher, however, not only presented a very different task; that task or, perhaps better, project was fulfilled and always intended to be fulfilled in a very different way. That itself is worked out in different ways. Musically, this is not a Debussyan ensemble, nor even an updated version thereof. There is malevolence, yes, such as one might extrapolate – reduce? transmute? – from Pelléas. But it is perhaps more akin to a spectralist standpoint taken upon what we might think, correctly or no, to be ‘original’, which approach would be in keeping with some of Van Parys’s other music.

There is a ‘horror music’ here far more interesting, at least to me, than anything popularly associated with the term. There is ‘atmospheric music’ too, though not necessarily of the Debussyan variety, one can sense a starting-point in Poe’s – Debussy’s? – mists, stagnant waters, and perhaps inevitably with respect to the house itself, in Bluebeard’s Castle too. The ambiguity between house as building and house as family brings to the fore another, more contemporary (to us) focus: surprising, perhaps, yet undoubtedly disturbing. References to race offer clear resonances with far-Right politics. The figure of the doctor, already elevated by Debussy into a more important figure, a rival for Roderick in his incestuous love with his sister Lady Madeline, takes on an additional, political significance: a manipulator of emotions, of sickness, of beliefs and practices we might have thought we had gone beyond. Increasingly sinister, aggressive, and liable to speak as well as to sing, is he perhaps, rather than the hapless ‘house’, however understood, the real actor here? Roderick’s visitor is surely well advised to leave.

In the context of such interesting ideas and committed performances from all concerned – three fine baritones, David Oštrek, Martin Gerke, and Dominic Kramer; the multi-talented Ruth Rosenfeld, equally at home in spoken and vocal theatre; and an instrumental ensemble with excellent direction by Marit Strindlund – it is a pity that Philippe Quesne’s production, adept at making eerily domestic use of this rehearsal room, ultimately opts for a little too much in the way of a commercial horror film aesthetic. Multiple television screens showing the ill-fated house on fire add little to the drama. What we see too often neither resonates with nor works productively against the grain of the opera itself. There will, however, be opportunities for other productions, I am sure. In the meantime, the work having been co-commissioned by the Staatsoper Unter den Lindn and the Folkoperan Stockholm, three other companies (Opera Vlaanderen, Muziektheater Transparant, and Nanterre-Amandiers centre dramatique national) have joined with them for this co-production. There is no one way to ‘complete’, but this path has proved fruitful.

Mark Berry

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