Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the Fall portion of the 93rd season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) came to a conclusion with the fourth and final performance of The Fall of the House of Usher: A Double Bill. Over the course of this brief run, it became clear that there was more than enough in not only the two one-act operas, both based on the Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of the same name, but also the way in which they were paired to make for a satisfying experiencing of not only the music but also the staging. In many respects the attentive viewer needs one performance for “basic orientation,” after which (s)he can begin (and probably just begin) to appreciate how much detailed thought has gone into the entire production as realized by David Pountney’s staging and David Haneke’s imaginative use of video projections.
Regarding the entire experience, this site previously noted the advantage of beginning with Gordon Getty’s “Usher House” and following it with Robert Orledge’s reconstruction and orchestration of Claude Debussy’s unfinished opera “La chute de la maison Usher.” Through both his understanding and embellishment of Poe, Getty wrote a libretto that took a tale that was almost entirely description and turned it into a highly compelling narrative. Having experienced the straightforward account of that narrative, the audience could then move on to the more meditative reflections on Poe that occupied Debussy’s authorship of his libretto.
Pountney, on the other hand, unified these two perspectives into an overarching theme in which the Usher mansion itself is as much of a character as Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, the doctor treating at least one, if not both, of them, and the friend (Poe himself in Getty’s opera) that provides the vehicle for the unfolding of the narrative. Getty’s “Usher House” is elegantly framed by Poe’s opening and closing sentences, the appearance of the house after an arduous journey leading to an obscured path through the woods and the physical fall of the house itself. The staging of the Debussy, on the other hand, is more informed by the house’s “backstory,” beginning with the tarn that held the stones of the destroyed castle and proceeding into close up images of those stones after they were pulled from the tarn and moved to the state of Georgia to rebuild the house (again on the edge of a tarn).
Equally significant were the complementary views of incest as a unifying theme. In Pountney’s approach to “Usher House,” the incestuous relationship between Roderick and Madeline is explicit (although it may or may not reside only in Roderick’s mind), while the doctor in Debussy’s version as much as asserts that the entire line of the Usher family was the result of incest. (The suggestion that the house is located in a remote part of Georgia will probably lead the literary-minded to seek parallels with the writings of William Faulkner.) Both opera librettos explicitly read this matter into Poe’s source text, but the result is two perspectives that fit together to constitute an intensely disquieting impression.
On the musical side the pairing is very much one of contrasting rhetorical stances. Getty makes use of a wide variety of instruments, but most of them are solo parts. He thus serves up music that is almost a counterpoint of sonorities, more concerned with how the different instrument sounds engage with each other than with the integration of all the voices. In addition, the “plain speaking” stance taken by each individual instrumental part recalls many of Virgil Thomson’s orchestral efforts, both operatic and symphonic. As a result, one gets the impression that Getty draws upon the poetry of his instrumentation to complement is approach to the prose qualities of the text (dismissed by some less sympathetic listeners as monotone chant).
“La chute de la maison Usher,” on the other hand, is a bit more perplexing, particularly since one is never sure when one is listening to Debussy and when to Orledge. For example, there is some highly rambunctious solo trombone work that seems more than a little alien to Debussy. On the other hand the opera begins with a rather clear “family resemblance” to “Jeux,” while suggestions of much older works (such as “La mer”) rear their heads from time to time. However, what may matter most is that the score takes an innovative approach to “impressionism” that departs from Debussy’s past work and moves into new territory, whether that territory was established by Debussy or Orledge.
Beyond matters of “grand design,” however, resides the “implementation” itself, the contributions of all performers working as both individuals and members of a team. Baritone Brian Mulligan is, in many respects, the spinal cord of the entire production, singing the role of Roderick Usher in both operas. What is important is that each opera requires a different perspective on this character’s personality traits.
Getty presents Usher to the audience as a well-to-do but rather mundane American aristocrat. The “visiting friend” is Poe himself; and the encounter amounts to a college reunion on a very small scale. Indeed, as Usher’s more warped side gradually evolves, the pursuit of knowledge remains the motivating theme of the entire libretto. When truth is finally disclosed, Usher the seeker becomes Usher the victim and the fall of the house itself reflects its first destruction in England. Mulligan excellently captured the multi-dimensionality of this seeker of knowledge destroyed by his very quest.
He then had to shift gears to a character talked about more than seen over the course of a long introductory section in Debussy’s libretto. Since Debussy is French, it is hard to avoid recalling Molière’s Tartuffe, who does not make an appearance until the second act. For that matter the role Debussy conceived for the doctor (tenor Joel Sorensen) makes him a bit like the doctor in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, providing us with background perspective before we encounter Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. When we finally do encounter Usher, we see Mulligan as a darkly haunted individual, more in the spirit of Charles Addams (but with none of the humor) than either Molière or Shakespeare. Much of Debussy’s score is an unfolding of extended monologues, and Mulligan knew how to capture the emergence of Usher’s character through those monologues.
In both operas the other roles also serve this progress of Usher’s personality disclosure. Both Getty’s Poe (tenor Jason Bridges) and Debussy’s “friend” baritone Edward Nelson) are sincerely sympathetic to Usher’s plight but clearly at a loss to do anything about it. The more interesting contrast comes with the portrayal of the doctor. Sorensen has the meatier role in the Debussy version, engaging with Nelson from the elevated position of the arrogant scientist, desperately trying to conceal his inability to understand Usher’s nature. In Getty’s opera, on the other hand, the doctor (whose name, Primus, may or may not reflect that he is somehow also the origin of the entire Usher dynasty) is portrayed by bass Anthony Reed almost as a sinister puppet master, particularly in his explicit manipulation of Usher’s sister Madeline in the character danced by Jamielyn Duggan, since soprano Jacqueline Piccolino is present only through her offstage voice. Piccolino appears on stage in the Debussy; but, in both operas, her role is minor, thus making her all the more mysterious. Ultimately, SFO casting served to provide insight into not only Poe’s source text but also the informatively contrasting approaches that the two operas took in establishing and developing the characters that Poe had created.