Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is heavy on macabre atmosphere and light on action, until the final paragraphs, in which the prematurely buried Madeline breaks free from her coffin and climbs upstairs to attack her brother, Roderick. Poe enhances the ghoulishness of the denouement with Roderick’s admission that he has heard Madeline struggling in her coffin for five days. Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy, each acting as their own librettist, modified Poe’s narrative in their attempts to adapt the short story for the stage.
Getty’s changes to the story for his opera Usher House are considerable. The Ushers are an ancient English family, guarding the secrets of communing with pre-Christian gods. Edward the Confessor punished the Ushers’ apostasy by having their mansion pushed into an adjacent lake. But the plucky Ushers drained the lake, shipped the stones to the New World, and set up shop somewhere in the American South.
In Getty’s telling, the visiting friend who narrates the short story is Edgar Allan Poe. Poe visits his old college buddy, Roderick, who is living with his sickly sister Madeline and the family physician, Doctor Primus.
Roderick welcomes Poe with a ball that is attended by Roderick, Madeline, Poe, and the dancing ghosts of dead Ushers. Madeline collapses after dancing and is interred in the family crypt. Doctor Primus offers to make Poe the guardian of the secrets of the old gods, since the Usher line is dying out. Poe tells Roderick of Doctor Primus’ intended betrayal, and then attempts to distract Roderick from a growing storm by reading a medieval romance.
The reading is interrupted by the sound of Madeline breaking out of her crypt. Madeline then destroys Doctor Primus with the power of her purity (or so Roderick deduces from the noises off in the crypt). Madeline’s purity doesn’t hinder her from tackling her brother and attempting to pull his eyes from their sockets as the curtain falls.
Whatever skills Mr. Getty may have as a composer, they are insufficient to make something coherent and compelling out of his awkward mishmash of a libretto. In a pre-performance interview, Getty said that he wanted Madeline and Roderick to be nice people that you wouldn’t mind dating your kids; characters like that have little in common with Poe’s creations.
Getty does have some skill in setting text in English to music and, based on the score of Usher House, we appear to like a lot of the same composers. But Usher House is an opera that only a general director who has been cashing large checks from the composer can love.
Debussy made fewer changes to the source material. Roderick is as depressing and strange in Debussy’s libretto as he is in the Poe story, but Debussy’s Roderick expresses incestuous longings for Madeline that are not present in Poe. Debussy also expands the role of Madeline’s doctor, who makes a single, silent appearance in the short story. For much of the opera, the doctor serves as a second narrator; this is useful for musical variety, since Roderick and his friend are both baritones and the doctor is a tenor.
In the biggest departure from the Poe story, the doctor finds Madeline’s body and buries her before Roderick can find out that she has died. Madeline breaks free from her coffin that same day and confronts Roderick. Without Roderick’s complicity in the premature burial and his inability to act on the aural evidence that his sister isn’t dead, the end of the opera lacks the dramatic punch of Poe’s closing paragraphs.
It’s hard to judge Debussy’s music in La Chute de la maison Usher, since slightly less than half of the music is by Debussy, with the rest provided by Robert Orledge. There are moments of great beauty in the orchestration, and the sound world created by Debussy is a much better match for the mood of the Poe story than Mr. Getty’s music. But, despite Mr. Orledge’s efforts, the opera doesn’t feel like a finished work.
Both operas were directed by David Pountney and used video projections provided by David Haneke in place of sets. For Usher House, the video images are in full color and feel like a travelogue of a Welsh Castle, filmed by a very restless cameraman. For the ball scene, the ghosts of prior Ushers are represented by projections of couples in various period outfits. The effect was about as spooky as Act II of Ruddygore.
Madeline, played on stage by dancer Jamielyn Duggan, and Doctor Primus were directed to act spooky by making strange motions with their hands and assuming odd postures; this produced more giggles than shivers in the audience. For La Chute de la maison Usher the direction was much more restrained, with the exception of the doctor, played by Joel Sorensen, who registered as more comic than menacing. Haneke created black and white videos for La Chute that evoked the macabre atmosphere of Poe’s short story.
Brian Mulligan played Roderick Usher in both operas. He has provided excellent vocal and dramatic contributions to other productions in San Francisco. If his work in Usher House fell short of his usual high standards, I blame the libretto, which doesn’t provide a consistent characterization for Roderick. Mulligan was more effective in La Chute, although it is a challenge to sustain sympathy for Roderick in this piece. Debussy gives Roderick two substantial monologues in which he describes the misery of his life. If Debussy had lived to complete the opera, I wonder if he would have trimmed those passages a bit.
Jacqueline Piccolino sang Madeline in both operas. She is limited to an off-stage voice in Usher House and only sings a short ballad at the beginning of La Chute; she sang the small amount of music allotted to her well. The rest of the cast, Jason Bridges as Poe, Anthony Reed as Doctor Primus, Edward Nelson as L’Ami, and Sorensen as Le Medecin gave solid performances. Mr. Reed deserves an award for singing the lines Getty wrote for him with a straight face. Since both operas are new to me, I can’t really judge Lawrence Foster’s conducting of the pieces.
In short, La Chute de la Maison Usher is an interesting musical fragment from a great composer, but it isn’t really stageworthy. Usher House is the Susan Alexander of operas.