Review: WNO - The Fall Of The House Of Usher Double Bill @ WMC
Edgar Allan Poe is still cool, as is proven in the recent video from the Epic Rap Battles Of History.
Few would argue that "Poe's poems pwn posers" and this operatic double-take on his classic The Fall Of The House Of Usher proves his mastery in suspense and pure horror.
On this pretty hot Friday the 13th, I gave Sophie Rashbrook's pre-show talk a miss. Instead, I attended a free screening of the great Czech stop motion animatorJan Å vankmajer. With an American Opera recital also on at the same time, WNO should spread out these great events over a few hours and not over each other. Å vankmajer's own take on The Fall of the House of Usher from 1982 is a bizarre and austere fifteen-minute, black and white affair, with no characters. The inanimate objects relevant to the story are the focal point: revolving, disintegrating and sprinting around the screen. It is a jarring work. As you read the subtitles, the Czech version of Poe's story goes on, and all the madcap stop motion occurs. His other work is lighter, more humorous and more accessible (Meat Love is a good introduction). More relevant free screenings is fine by me.
"Near incestuous relationship"
Not since James MacMillan's The Sacrifice, back in 2007, has the company had a world premiere of a brand new opera. This is always an exciting prospect and this previous premiere proved to be a great success in my eyes. Gordon Getty has composed and written the libretto for Usher House (the music completed in the swift manner of six weeks). This new take on the work keeps the story in the same era but it is Poe himself who is the friend of Roderick Usher, who visits him in his estate. The near incestuous relationship with Roderick and his ill twin sister, Madeline, are what keeps this slim story going, along with the great anxiety and manic thoughts that fills him as a character. After being declared dead, Madeline is placed into the family crypt. Roderick hears noises coming from below. It is his sister. She was buried alive and has found her way up to the surface. As she clutches her brother, the house that caused them so much pain collapses around them.
Much has been said about Getty's own family and estate. But it's thanks to them that the WNO British First Series has gotten underway with Wagner Dream, this, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. His music fits the story extremely well. Its Gothic and tonal body kept the momentum, but I craved more. Great moments for glockenspiel, celesta, piano and even a harpsichord all featured, adding to the atmosphere.
"A hothouse of mood, tensions and pain"
Poe's aria in the middle could easily become a stand alone piece. String and brass chords reminded me of Messiaen and even Wagner. The singing all round was smashing. Jason Bridges as Poe looked the part and had a calm, golden voice. Benjamin Bevan as Roderick looked more Dickensian villain than Poe, but sang in his merriment and then terror as the story unfolded. Madeline was played by the dancer, Joanna Jeffries (and briefly sung by Anna Gorbachyova), who maintained an offence of her sanity and moved with an eloquence and eventual animalistic brutality.
Getty is so steeped in 19th century music that there is little chance of him writing in the style of later techniques or inventions. He keeps his own voice, as he has always done. His next opera is based on Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, in Leipzig, along with Usher House, being preformed in San Francisco next year.
Claude Debussy's take on the House of Usher is starkly different. Having tinkered away at it for ten years, it was left uncompleted at his death. Apart from PellÃ©as and MÃ©lisande, all his other operas remained unfinished. Robert Orledge has saved the day with a reconstruction and orchestration of what Debussy has left behind. Listening to it, you would think that no one else has handled this piece. It is so very Debussy. In fact, Usher House seems like the unfinished opera, with it's abrupt ending. It doesn't matter that his impressionistic- and oriental-inspired writing doesn't necessarily go with the story (Anna Gorbachyova's reprisal as Madeline gave her a gorgeous yet brief opening aria). The atmosphere he does create is a hothouse of mood, tensions and pain. Robert Hayward as Roderick unravels a slow, deeply tormented person who can't bare the burden of the house anymore.
No one would dare boo director David Pountney like they have with previous directors (it's very commonplace for this to happen now), since he makes productions that are pleasing and provoking at the same time.
"An horrific and awful plot twist"
Both operas lead very well into the same ending as there is an horrific and awful plot twist, which leaves the audience as blasted as we are mortified by what we have discovered. The sets for both works are massive screens with extremely moody footage of Penrhyn Castle. David Haneke has filmed here, adding a great apprehension to the story in both guises: the Debussy looking more monochromatic, the Getty more lavish and colourful. If there is one down point, it is the poor use of the ghosts and Madeline when on the screens. Here they both look slightly cheesy and clash with the rest of the superb footage. My previous concern with video is that opera has been blown away with this, proving it can be done, though perhaps in small doses only...
With Faith and now the horror of House of Usher over, WNOs next season's theme will be that of Liberty of Death!
The Fall of the House of Usher Double Bill is next performed at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Friday 20th June 2014. You can see tickets here.
WNO's Moses und Aron [reviewed by us here] is available here on BBC iPlayer for a week from Monday 16th June 2014 and Boulevard Solitude [here] is to be aired on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 24th June 2014, and will also last a week on the iPlayer thereafter.
WNO's Autumn season sees new productions of Rossini's William Tell and Moses in Egypt and the revival of Bizet's Carmen. A concert with the orchestra of WNO will be on Friday 31st of October, with a programme to be announced.
Photos Credit: Stephen Cummiskey