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Fall of the House of Usher Review-Ambiguity Abounding

By Adam Dahlgren

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Philip Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher at Chicago Opera Theater


Philip Glass's 1987 opera The Fall of the House of Usher, which recently began a run with the Chicago Opera Theater, is a highly unusual experience, but one does not go to Glass's work expecting the routine. However, director Ken Cazan has taken the work, a highly cerebral, enigmatic interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe's story, and given it a unique life of its own that makes it a memorable, if also perplexing, performance. In the scenario of Glass and librettist Arthur Yorinks, William (baritone Lee Gregory) is summoned to the house of his despondent longtime friend, Roderick Usher (tenor Ryan McPherson), who along with his sister Madeline (soprano Suzan Hanson), are the last surviving members of a once-proud family, a shell of its former greatness. The house itself seems to cast a pall on those who enter; William is warned by the family doctor (tenor Jonathan Mack) of the danger of the situation, but his warning goes unheeded. As the libretto is written, William does not actually see Madeline, who is ill and isolated in her room, but she is represented by a a singer (Hanson), who never sings any dialogue, but sings an anguished high-pitched note, sometimes for very long intervals, simply singing “ahahahahah” as if she were tuning her voice, but it represents the whole of her character's performance, creating a strange dissonance against the other singers who are singing dialogue at the same time, and set against Glass's typically eerie, rhythmic orchestral music to create strange, but sometimes oddly beautiful, harmonies.

Lee Gregory as William (standing), Ryan McPherson as Roderick Usher (sitting) and Suzan Graham as Madeline Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher

Lee Gregory as William in The Fall of the House of Usher

Cazan’s production has added psychological and sexual layers to the characters. In his conception, Roderick and William become lovers; as he puts it in his explanatory essay on the production, “Roderick's desperate need of William and Willam's 'sensitive' gift of a music box and anxiousness to be with Roderick immediately impressed me as a  budding or long desired, unfulfilled homosexual relationship.” Roderick doesn't merely desire his friend, but it is also strongly desired that he desires his sister, as well. Though Madeline is supposed to be invisible in the opera, in this production, she appears on stage, moving as a kind of apparition between the two male protagonists, and, while he remains invisible to William, Madeline and Roderick seem to act in consort, united in erotic excitement by the strange forces that act on them while in the house and seem to be acting on William, too. Cazan has included several extras who perform as stage hands during the production, moving the pillars of the production around to give the impression of movement in the house, but the extras are dressed in punk costumes, with outrageous Mohawk hairstyles. It's never entirely clear what their actual relationship is to the plot, but they're malevolent forces; at the opera's end, they shut William out of the house, as Madeline, who has been raised from the dead (or did she ever really die? I don't know), is united with her brother in a weird consummation as William is killed by the punks, who surround the incestuous pair with the pillars, enclosing them in the house while excluding William.

Suzan Graham as Madeline in the Fall of the House of Usher

It's easy to see why somebody like Glass would be drawn to Poe's stories. The psychological insights and the ambiguity of Poe's work was ahead of its time. He predated Freud, and The Fall of the House of Usher is a highly eerie, ambiguous piece, beautifully representative of Poe's style and in line with Glass's style. Glass's music has a tendency to be monotonous, using minimal forces (the Chicago Opera Theater's orchestra, conducted by its new artistic director, Andreas Mitisek,  used only 13 musicians), and employing a hypnotic, rhythmic style, frequently using violins that rhythmically go back and forth like a metronome or a clock's pendulum. This style is Glass's signature (I've had a chance to listen to some of his other music), and it is fairly effective despite its limitations. The opera, though it is unusual in almost every aspect, and in some aspects, outright bizarre (Cazan's conception merely multiplies the oddities), is so unique that those who see it are not soon bound to forget it. Despite the inscrutability of aspects of the work itself and the production, The Fall of the House of Usher presents a  world and characters that seem both an embodiment of the psychological horrors inherent in Edgar Allen Poe's work, as well as a symbol of the frustrations that can accompany the risky venture that is an avant-garde production.

Ryan McPherson as Roderick Usher and Lee Gregory as William in The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher will run at Chicago Opera Theater, housed in the Harris Theater in Chicago, 205 E Randolph St, on February 23, 24, 27, and March 1, 2013. 

Published on Feb 24, 2013

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