The Fall of the House of Usher

Welsh National Opera's latest horror-story double-bill was a mixed success, says Rebecca Franks

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The Fall of the House of Usher
The Fall of the House of Usher
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It was Friday 13th. The moon was full. Apart from the blazing sunshine, it couldn’t have been a more apt day for a double-bill of chamber operas based on a story by one of the great horror-story writers, Edgar Allan Poe.

The Fall of the House of Usher, a short story published in 1839, tells the tale of the demise of the noble family of Usher. The last descendants, the abnormally close twins Roderick and Madeline (who is dying) live alone in the sinister, mysterious family home. When Madeline dies, darkly terrifying events unfold. It's atmospheric and chilling, and has been set by Claude Debussy and Gordon Getty, with both works staged as part of Welsh National Opera's current British Firsts season.

Getty, who, it should be said, recently gave £1.2 million to Welsh National Opera to stage five contemporary operas, including his own piece, chose to tell Poe's story in a straightforward fashion, turning the unnamed narrator into Poe himself and filling in plot holes. The price of this decision to pride narrative over atmosphere was a text-heavy opera, mostly sung in a relentless arioso style. There was little to distinguish individual characters, despite the best efforts of a superb cast (Benjamin Bevan as Roderick Usher, Anna Gorbachyova as Madeline, Jason Bridges as Poe and Kevin Short as Doctor Primus). And while the orchestral writing was craftsmanlike, clear, and colourfully played by the WNO orchestra, the whole effect was rather short on drama or mystery.

Debussy, on the other hand, chose to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, drawing us into the sensory world of Roderick Usher. The opera lay incomplete at Debussy’s death in 1918 – after nearly ten years of working on it, he left music in short score for only the first scene and a bit of the second. Musicologist Robert Orledge picked up his pen to complete it, the results of which were premiered at the Bregenz festival in 2006.

Robert Hayward seemed to crumble before our eyes as the tortured Roderick Usher, his long monologue the focus of the opera. His obsession with the very stones of the house and his sister seemed to crush him beneath their collective weight. The Lady Madeline (again Anna Gorbachyova) hardly figured – a ghost or figment of the imagination, perhaps psychologically all the more powerful for her absence, though her apperance on screen, bloodied and looming, at the end of the opera brought a terrifying splash of hammer horror. Marc Le Brocq made his mark as the unhelpful, creepy Doctor, as did William Dazeley in the role of the visiting friend.

With over half of the opera to orchestrate, Orledge did an impressive job of creating a continous whole. There were flashes of colourful brilliance in the orchestration and, flawed though the opera might be in its incomplete artistic vision, there's more than enough to give a tantalising taste of what might have been.

Sympathetically directed by David Pountney, a clever use of video screens gave life to the ever-present, all-powerful House of Usher, filmed by David Haneke at Penrhyn Castle. The footage had a life of its own, whisking us down corridors into rooms where fireplaces towered over the figures on stage and, Hogwarts-like, the portraits came to life. In the Debussy, black-and-white film rather than the full-colour used for the Getty, focused on the texture of the stones and the towering columns as the pressure built up before the shattering ending.

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

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