Review: ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ at Long Beach Opera

Although his popularity has never truly waned, we seem to be in another resurgence of interest in the works of Edgar Allan Poe:  there’s the John Cusack film, The Raven, last year; the popularity of the Poe action figure (complete with Raven) in hipster stores several years ago; and the newly launched Kevin Bacon vehicle on Fox TV, The Following, which relies heavily on Poe for its villain’s motivation.

Suzan Hanson, Lee Gregory and Ryan MacPherson.  Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff, 2013.
Suzan Hanson, Lee Gregory and Ryan MacPherson. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

But Long Beach Opera‘s new co-production (with Chicago Opera Theater) of The Fall of the House of Usher, penned in Philip Glass‘ unmistakably driving style, is no bandwagon ploy:  this is a significant work, a minimalist operatic setting of Poe’s classic 1839 short story, in a staging by Ken Cazan that clearly has things to say, while it refrains from offering easy answers.

One of the things this company does particularly well is create unusual experiences, surpassing mere shows. Choosing their venues boldly, they then respect the spaces in which they perform, where other groups might simply make do, and expect their audience to do the same.  In this instance, it seems fitting that even the drive became part of the adventure:  we don’t talk about our bridges much in Southern California, but the two monumental structures leading to San Pedro from the east are high and massive, taking drivers through a corridor of enormous port cranes, their arms raised in a steel salute.  (Pardon the architectural awe.)

The venue itself is the same one LBO booked for last year’s Maria de Buenos Aires — the nicely restored Warner Grand Theatre, in its fully bedecked art deco glory, right down to the diabolically uncomfortable theater seats.  Once settled, however, it’s very easy to bask in the golden-era cinema glow.  The stage lacks a full curtain, so the simple set was clearly visible before and after.  This proved useful, as one of the appealing things about this company is a sort of family atmosphere:  rarely will you see another artistic director gladhanding among the audience before the show, then grabbing a microphone and making announcements about exits and cell phones himself.  Andreas Mitisek‘s natural charm and accessibility are a big part of the culture here, and with this same easy, conversational tone, he produces a letter from his pocket, explaining that it was left on his desk earlier in the day:

“I’m writing to you from the ninth level of Hell,” it reads.  The writer, Poe himself, then snarks, “don’t believe whatever Dante said about it.”  Our buddy Edgar goes on with a shout-out to his “homies”, the Baltimore Ravens, in the upcoming Super Bowl, and offers an equally contemporary cry of support for LBO and their efforts, explaining sympathetically, “you don’t know what hell is until you try to stage a production without cash” and admonishes that operagoers should “remember that the exchange rate for their money down here is zero — so they should put it to good use while they’re still up there.”  Met with genuine enthusiasm, it was undeniably the most well-received stage beg in recent memory.

This flair for old-made-new extended easily to the show itself once the music started.  As the overture begins, the spotlight catches our hero, “William” (a character without name in Poe’s original), sitting in a large leather chair, reading from his iPad.  An email arrives from his childhood friend, Roderick (Ryan MacPherson), begging him to visit the house where he lives in isolation with his sister, Madeleine.  William (Lee Gregory) pulls out a cell phone to make reservations, purchases a gift from a vendor whose credit card swiper is attached to a mobile phone, and goes through a similar transaction when purchasing drinks on the plane.  Supernumeraries, also acting as stagehands, are in punked-out leather, dreadlocks, mohawks and heavy makeup.  The set and costumes are aggressively modern, and equally bleak: everything is grey and gloomy, with red accents throughout:  Roderick’s coat, his favorite chair, Madeleine’s shoes.  The gruesome symbolism is plain.

The large grey walls of the set pieces do double duty, often becoming projection backdrops, as strong up-lights cast exaggerated, unusually clear shadows of the cast, echoing the looming curse faced by the house’s inhabitants.  Glass’ repetitive but constantly shifting musical fabric creates an aural backdrop for the action, punctuating rhythms with the characters’ emotions as they come — tonality is another part of the story.  Unfortunately, the ranges required of the performers are extreme, particularly in the lower registers, leaving a few notes in most of the roles that were not as audible as one might wish.  But if memory serves, this space is difficult to sing in, in general, and all of the singers sounded well in spite of any minor difficulties.

Madeleine, played by soprano Suzan Hanson, is said to be resting in bed when William arrives, but she is visible to us, and ever-present: it takes a few minutes to realize that William can’t see her as she grasps at him and clings to her twin brother, Roderick.  The situation becomes more clear when we see him shy away from her as she breathes on his neck or scratches at his arm.  Her wails whip around the two friends in oppressive desperation, although we don’t yet know why; we can only see that Roderick is keenly aware of her, and it sets him on edge.  Hanson embodies the woeful, exceedingly nonverbal role:  her part is deceptively simple for its lack of any text, but singing on vowels alone for ninety minutes can only be more difficult than learning lines (what if you lose your place?), and she executes her task very well:  she sounds eerie and desperate, forming the picture of craven madness.

As William reconnects with Roderick and sees the anguish his friend is experiencing, he earnestly tries to help, taking away the things he deems harmful to Roderick’s peace — the doctor, the paints, the guitar — and instead, he enfolds Roderick in his arms and his love.  But these elements may actually have been the structure that was holding Roderick together.  Although Roderick settles down a bit after he reveals that Madeleine has died and been entombed in the family vault, his mind deteriorates rapidly.

Clever, if not subtle, touches, such as serving dinner atop Madeleine’s coffin, the billowing sheets and group writhing around William’s bed, and the appearance of a second chair for William next to Roderick’s, giving him the “queen’s place” by the throne now that Madeleine is gone, are unmistakable in their symbolism and leave little room for doubt as to how roles shift and change in the story.  But with the exception of William, the innocent who stumbles unknowingly into the madhouse, we cannot be certain who is victim or villain as the action unfolds, even including the servant (Nick Shelton) and the physician (Jonathan Mack).  Shelton’s deep, beautifully rumbling tones and his gravitas suggest deeper truths, but we’re never sure how much he really knows.  Mack gets to show off the lovely, bright tones in his upper range, and gives his character a soulful, foreboding edge.

This “question everything” environment creates a sort of dark fog, obscuring truth and hounding its inhabitants. Even as Roderick holds a knife to his own throat at the end, we can see that his violence is double-edged, rooted both in paranoia and in an ultimate attempt at self-preservation as the madness takes over.  The end offers no simple conclusions: the fall of the house is the end of the twins, to be sure.  The lack of a proscenium curtain and the composer’s withering final chords left the audience unsure of the applause cue at the end, but once the cast appeared for their bows, enthusiasm was clearly apparent.

In speaking to other audience members after the show, it wasn’t surprising to find that this show isn’t everyone’s cup of tea:  described openly as “edgy”, “wild” and even “out there” by cast and company members in the days before the debut, I was prepared for an unusual challenge.  But this treatment of the story delves freely into themes of manipulation and desire across lines of gender and family that will make many uncomfortable, particularly because the staging and performances are so convincing:  no matter what your leanings, this show is dead sexy.  These themes, arguably part of the original work, are portrayed with unflinching, libidinous honesty, and don’t, therefore, seem out of place.

Suzan Hanson and Ryan MacPherson.  Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff, 2013.
Suzan Hanson and Ryan MacPherson. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

It is these very desires that trap Roderick and Madeleine, the doomed twins who seem to share a soul and cannot be saved, by friendship or even love.  This is what ghost stories are supposed to be: testing limits to the extremes of imagination.  But they’re too often mired in Victorian morality — and without the sex, the terror and any possible lessons derived from it are watered down.

We never find out for sure whether the composer believes the Ushers are their own undoing, or whether they were doomed from the start.  We must remember that Poe did not intend this to be a morality tale — we are not meant to emulate these characters.  But there is much to learn from their story, even in its uncertainty.  What is certain is that LBO has created something extraordinary, and once the show leaves the Warner Grand, Chicago is in for a treat at the end of the month.

Two performances remain, on Feb 2 & 3:  see LBO’s website for tickets and more information.  The production goes to Chicago Opera Theater Feb 23 — Mar 1.

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