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Usher House &  La Chute de la Maison Usher

Welsh National Opera

In Review WNO Usher 914
Debussy's Maison Usher in Cardiff, with Dazeley, Hayward and Gorbachyova
© Stephen Cummiskey 2014

Claude Debussy turned to the mysterious tales of Edgar Allan Poe for what might have become a double bill of operas to follow up the international artistic success of Pellé́as et Mélisande in 1902. In the event, neither La Chute de la Maison Usher (based on Poe's Fall of the House of Usher) nor Le Diable dans le Beffroi (from The Devil in the Belfry) ever proceeded beyond sketches. Although the composer worked on the former intermittently between 1908 and 1917, the year before his death at the age of fifty-five, one Debussy expert, Richard Langham Smith, has written, "It is widely agreed that [Usher] is too incomplete to be convincing in a reconstruction."

Several attempts have been made, nevertheless, to bring the material to a performable state. On June 13, at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Welsh National Opera gave the U.K. premiere of an Usher completion by English musicologist Robert Orledge, another expert in French music of Debussy's period. In a highly unusual piece of programming, the world-premiere staging was given on the same evening as another work on the same subject — Usher House,by the American composer, businessman and philanthropist, eighty-year-old Gordon Getty.

Getty's version was on first. The composer set his own libretto, which replaces Poe's narrator (a friend of Roderick Usher) with a character representing the writer himself. The sinister doctor of Poe's short story is given a name — Primus — and his role is beefed up with references to and quotations from other works by the American Gothic horror specialist. The role of Madeline, Roderick Usher's doomed sister, was divided between Russian soprano Anna Gorbachyova and dancer Joanna Jeffries. 

Getty's style derives from nineteenth-century antecedents, rather than from anything more recent: Mussorgsky, for some reason, seemed the dominant influence here, both in the harmony and in the orchestration (which frequently recalled Pictures at an Exhibition in Rimsky-Korsakov's large-scale treatment of his late colleague's piano original). The extensive text is set in a kind of parlando manner that once again could be related to Mussorgsky's practice. The result is neither especially memorable nor original, but it does mark an advance over Plump Jack, Getty's earlier Falstaff opera, even if the word-setting remains effortful when not clumsy and the general level of technical skills fairly limited. 

Gorbachyova managed the brief (and, in the circumstances, entirely appropriate) hysterics of Madeline beautifully. American bass-baritone Kevin Short gave malign character and distinctively grand vocal status to the Dr. Miracle-like creepiness of Doctor Primus. His compatriot, tenor Jason Bridges, represented well the increasing concern of Edgar Allan Poe about the clearly disintegrating mental state of his friend Roderick Usher, sung with apparently ever-increasing nervousness by English baritone Benjamin Bevan. 

David Pountney's production used some standard design elements in terms of Niki Turner's atmospheric set and costumes but relied more on cleverly selected film material shot at Penrhyn Castle in North Wales — a sizable country house in the county of Gwynedd mostly dating from the 1820s and '30s, and exemplifying perfectly the Gothic revival manner that so neatly suits Poe's dark imaginings. David Haneke was responsible for the resulting videos, and also for material used in the evening's second opera.

Though La Chute de la Maison Usher felt more complex and interesting from a musical point of view, Orledge's completion of the Debussy one-act nevertheless registered, as a whole, as unsatisfactory. He himself estimated that some fifty-two percent of the score was his, rather than Debussy's; even so, Debussy's sketches apparently contain only one dynamic marking, one tempo marking, no key or time signatures, no phrasing marks nor any indications of scoring. In Orledge's realization, the result sometimes felt piecemeal while occasionally rising to something more musically ambitious — moving away, perhaps, from Debussy's earlier style — though that, too, might partly be the result of their editor's contributions. The completion was interesting to encounter, but no more than that.

Pountney's production was once more eerily stage-worthy. Gorbachyova again supplied soprano atmospherics as Madeline. This time, Mark Le Brocq personified the shady doctor, with William Dazeley as the helpless but concerned Friend and Robert Hayward going into neurasthenic overdrive as the doomed and decadent Roderick Usher. Lawrence Foster was the meticulous conductor of both operas. spacer


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