Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome – Gordon Getty’s Usher House … Debussy’s La chute de la maison Usher

Gordon Getty
Usher House – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer after Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher [world premiere staging; sung in English with English surtitles]
La chute de la maison Usher – Drame lyrique in one Act [unfinished] to a libretto by the composer after Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher [reconstruction and orchestration by Robert Orledge; sung in French with English surtitles]

Usher House
Edgar Allen Poe – Jason Bridges
Roderick Usher – Benjamin Bevan
Doctor Primus – Kevin Short
Madeline Usher – Anna Gorbachyova
Lady Madeline – Joanna Jeffries (dancer)

La chute de la maison Usher
Lady Madeline – Anna Gorbachyova
Le Médecin – Mark Le Brocq
L’Ami – William Dazeley
Roderick Usher – Robert Hayward

Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera
Lawrence Foster

David Pountney – Director
David Haneke – Video projection designer
Niki Turner – Designer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting design
Benjamin Naylor – Tour lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 20 June, 2014
Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome, England

Mark Le Brocq (Le Medecin) & William Dazeley (L'Ami) in The Fall of the House of Usher, Welsh National Opera. Photograph: Stephen CoummiskeyA curious double-bill of opera, with both works based on Edgar Allen Poe’s disturbing and atmospheric short story The Fall of the House of Usher. Both pieces were staged in a masterly way with impressive use of high-definition video film projection. The films were tours through the grounds and house of Usher (the filming was at Penrhyn Castle) which incorporated a deal of colour for the Gordon Getty work and was largely monochrome for the Debussy. Both settings were strong on impact, and the sense of place and shifting locations of the two works. The “falls” were equally impressive in the different ways. It was brilliantly executed and beautiful to watch.

The new Getty is a curio. There was a sense of trying too hard in that the libretto is a very wordy affair, full of unnecessary detail, the characters reduced to telling you too much of their motivation and scene-setting rather than allowing the staging and the music to take on that important role. The music itself is more like your average cinematic soundtrack, meandering this way and that without adding a huge amount. Unmemorable, it is also something of a pastiche, with threads being drawn all too obviously at times from the styles of other composers (Britten, Richard Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov all seemed to be strong influences). Fatally lacking was a sense of foreboding – think how Britten creates the ominous atmosphere of Bly in The Turn of the Screw and you realise what was lacking here. The vocal lines were not interesting either, if sung with admirably clear diction. The sparse orchestration helped there.

The Debussy fragments – realised by Robert Orledge – showed starkly what was missing. There really was a sense of menace and uncertainty from the off, the shadowy Allemonde of his Pelléas et Mélisande but the House of Usher is an altogether more menacing environment and this was apparent straightway. The characters came across as more overtly nervy, neurotic and desperate. There was more ebb and flow and turbulence emanating from the pit. The performances were strong, too. Indeed, Robert Hayward delivered something of a tour de force as Roderick Usher in a protracted and demanding scena where the character disintegrates before our very eyes as his world crumbles. Mark Le Brocq’s Doctor was also well characterised, and the richness of Anna Gorbachyova’s voice made impact despite her brief contribution. William Dazeley did what he could with the limited opportunities of L’Ami.

The evening was enjoyable, and a superb demonstration of how effective video techniques can be. The Debussy/Orledge certainly deserves an occasional outing perhaps with an alternative companion work. Even a semi-staging with the same projections would work.

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