San Francisco Opera ends the year with a double-bill of hour-long works based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher: Gordon Getty’s Usher House and a reconstruction of Claude Debussy’s La Chute de la Maison Usher, which the French composer left unfinished.
Poe’s hoary Gothic tale tells the story of a tortured brother and sister who cohabit inside a creepy castle. It involves scenes of hypochondria, catalepsy, implied incest, and a grizzly live burial. The dramatic plot might seem perfect for operatic treatment. But San Francisco Opera sadly squanders the opportunity owing to the dry music and a dull staging. When the most interesting things about a performance are the curtain call and the onstage rain, you know you’re in trouble.
Director David Pountney’s staging of Getty’s Usher House looks reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Kitsch rules. It all begins with video images of a raven atop a castle. On opening night, the clichéd melodrama of the image provoked laughter from the audience. And the production continues in this spirit, cycling predictably through images of windswept trees, the sound of horses’ hooves and frequent cuts back to the raven. Despite all this visual and sonic activity, the staging feels strangely static. This impression is compounded by the fact that the performers mostly stand still while singing.
Getty’s music is sparse, creepy and chromatic. The texture is also generally thin, only involving at most two musical lines at a time. Getty mainly constructs his opera out of dialogue between the characters. There are very few real melodies in all this back and forth.
“Where Is My Lady?” is the one bona fide aria of Getty’s work. Sung by tenor Jason Bridges in this production, this ballad about the beauty and grace of Madeline Usher, one of the two siblings at the heart of Poe’s story, is sweet, and Bridges makes the most of it. Oddly, Getty chooses not to include a setting of the one song that’s included in Poe’s original story — “The Haunted Palace” — which Roderick Usher, Madeline’s brother, sings accompanied by his own guitar playing.
The opera isn’t without moments of clarity. Representing Madeline on stage (singer Jacqueline Piccolino sings off stage later in the piece), dancer Jamielyn Duggan provides welcome movement to the otherwise largely inert staging. Her fluttery steps, choreographed by Jo Jeffries, provide a spark of life and movingly reflect Madeline’s frail state of health. There is also an entertaining ball scene with filmed supernumeraries playing the ghostly forebears of the Ushers. The actors bow at the end of the opera, their reappearance during curtain call providing an amusing touch.
There are a couple of existing versions of Debussy’s unfinished La Chute de la Maison Usher. San Francisco Opera presents a take completed by music scholar Robert Orledge which received its premiere in 2006. Orledge’s orchestration has none of the lushness and descriptiveness of Debussy’s only finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, or indeed the rest of his music. The result is both strange and staid. It’s no surprise that Debussy, though he labored on this work for nine years, ultimately abandoned it.
Unlike Getty’s opera, Debussy’s is monologue- rather than dialogue-driven, so there are more songs. Yet the music is often more declamatory than lyrical. Poutney’s staging only adds to the heavy-handed feeling, as the video projections focus on the austere architectural details of the Ushers’ home, like the columns and statues.
The Fall of the House of Usher comes at the end of a challenging year for San Francisco Opera. Notably, the company has gone through around a dozen casting changes. In this production, for instance, Jason Bridges and Joel Sorenson stepped in for Richard Croft, who was originally scheduled to personify Poe in the Getty and Le Médecin in the Debussy. Yet despite an overall lackluster night out at the opera, the performers — especially baritone Brian Mulligan and soprano Jacqueline Piccolino who play the Usher twins in both pieces — still manage to hold their own.