THE HORROR OF SELF-DENIAL FUELS INVENTIVE STAGING
Chicago Opera Theater has teamed up with Long Beach Opera in California to produce a delightfully disturbing presentation of Philip Glass’ adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s renowned horror text, The Fall of the House of Usher. While the clichés of such American Gothic might seem to call for organ and Theremin, Glass’ repetitions ratchet up paranoia and disorientation to a degree that honors the author.
This Chicago debut of the 1987 work is a bold choice by Andreas Mitisek, new general director of Chicago Opera Theater. Glass tends to inspire strong responses, positive and otherwise, and the continual, circular pattern of the composition provides a sense of tension that increases from the merely eerie to the flamboyantly dreadful. The eighty minute piece for thirteen musicians plus vocalists – conducted by Mitisek as well – is an adept concentration of Poe’s tale in which a young man rushes to the side of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, a troubled genius and final heir of a wealthy and apparently doomed lineage.
The story itself is rife with ambiguity and things unsaid: Why is the narrator compelled to run to the side of a childhood friend? Is Roderick’s sister Madeline Usher actual or a figment of an opium-induced hallucination? It is not difficult to believe that the young man’s urge to comfort sprang from admiration, and while nothing to this effect is explicitly stated in Arthur Yorinks’ limited libretto, Ken Cazan’s staging reasonably and unabashedly presents a homosexual motivation for the scenario.
The narrator, unnamed by Poe, is called William and is ably played by Baritone Lee Gregory, depicting the character’s naïveté and ardor by turn. Ryan MacPherson’s tenor is both solid and alluring, presenting the many aspects of Roderick with an underlying consistency that renders his decline believable. Soprano Suzan Hanson reprises the role she created, singing Madeline’s wordless part to chilling effect. An injection-happy physician, played by tenor Jonathan Mack, and bass-baritone Nick Shelton as the enigmatic servant, complete the cast.
The decision to dress the supernumeraries in Goth gear is consistent with the anachronistic aspects of the staging – William receives Roderick’s cry for help via a computer tablet – and are distracting at first. However, they come to fit the scene, serving to move Alan E. Muraoka’s dungeon-like set modules and adding to the air of overall menace.
But it is Cazan who culls meaning and excitement from a rather innocuous libretto which has little to no subtext. Since Poe’s tale involves the lineage of the Usher family, Cazan wryly contextualizes the opera with a closeted and conflicted Roderick, who invites William for inspiration. But for what? Roderick’s intentions are exquisitely murky. Roderick knows he is the only Usher who can keep his ancestry alive and he is clearly torn between personal liberation and familial responsibility. Is his shame encouraging suicidal thoughts and he wants William to talk him out of it? Does he want to rekindle a love he once knew for William? Or is he attempting to instill pride in a friend by presenting him the pain, torture and stress that stems from a closeted existence? Does Madeline represent his feminine side which he would rather destroy than accept? It is Cazan’s hidden agenda that transforms an interesting opera into an exciting theatrical event.
photos by Liz Lauren
The Fall of the House of Usher
Chicago Opera Theater/Long Beach Opera
Harris Theater for Music and Dance
scheduled to end on March 1, 2013
for tickets, call 312-704-8414 or visit COT
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