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Delan; Elsner, Dupuis, Ens; Cumberbatch, speaker; Orquestra Gulbenkian, Foster. Text, in English. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 451 (1)
The very first notes of Usher House reveal what must have drawn composer Gordon Getty to Poe’s tale. The original Fall of the House of Usher, published in 1839, overplays its gothic horrors, but it also bathes in atmosphere. It’s the story’s haunted setting, its hints of decay and secrets, that the music evokes from the start with economy, immediacy and apparent spontaneity.
Wavy woodwind fragments, chromatically flavored, flit about like unwelcome memories as Edgar Allan Poe himself — turned into a character in Getty’s libretto — arrives at an isolated, dilapidated manor house to visit Roderick Usher, an old school friend. Traded off to other instruments, the moody elements of the accessible, mostly diatonic score are never long absent, even though Getty varies the claustrophobic moods with warmer, more conventional devices such as a tuneful ball scene and a love song. (Some of the triple-meter tunes manage to combine both modes, romantic and gothic.) The libretto also contrives to rehabilitate Usher and his ghostlike twin sister, Madeline, sinister invalids in the story who destroy one another in grisly ways.
Getty’s adaptation grows heavy-handed in its effort to shift the darker forces from this pair to the Usher family ancestors and forebears, and to a villain who is also not found in the original tale, one Dr. Primus. The complex backstory involves nearly as many names as an Old Testament genealogy, as Getty takes the family back all the way to the fifth century, citing condemnations by medieval authors and Britain’s Edward the Confessor. It’s a lot of verbiage for a one-acter lasting some sixty minutes, and the complex plot lines lack dramatic clarity.
Terse, pointillistic dabs of instrumental color are gradually enriched during the lengthy explanations between Usher and Poe, without getting beyond clusters of notes and rising or falling chord sequences, which evoke a suspense that never really pays off. New plot twists emerge abruptly, with little motivation, and the literal collapse of the Usher house passes almost unperceived at the opera’s end, with Poe’s narrative trailing off in a diminuendo.
An independent librettist might have simplified matters, or at least could have spared Usher House some unnecessary awkward moments in the old friends’ reunion, such as Usher’s habit of calling Poe “Eddie.” On the plus side, there’s theatrical efficiency in devices like having a maître d’ announce a series of guests (all relatives) arriving at the ball, while ancestors in portraits come alive. In this recording those names are read off with Downton Abbey professionalism by a “special guest” actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, in a show of luxury cameo casting.
None of the musical participants have as much name recognition as actor Cumberbatch (television’s most recent Sherlock Holmes, as well as the star of several blockbuster films), but they perform their congenial music, of modest range and technical demands, with obvious commitment. Tenor Christian Elsner is sensitive in the role of Poe, managing the transitions from recitative to arioso smoothly. His pleasant timbre suggests none of the undertones we might expect in a portrayal of the actual Poe. Etienne Dupuis’s light, flexible baritone and the bright tones of soprano Lisa Delan help to whitewash the story’s spooky twins. Bass Phillip Ens, on the other hand, has little vocal menace as the villainous Primus. The Orquestra Gulbenkian, a Portuguese ensemble, offers flavorful solo lines in the palatable chamber textures of the orchestration, under Lawrence Foster’s steady, self-effacing direction.
DAVID J. BAKER
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