Long Beach Opera set off about the business of its 2013 season this past Sunday, returning to the cavernous Deco expanse of San Pedro's Warner Grand Theater with a claustrophobically erotic West Coast premiere production of Philip Glass's 1987 operatization of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher.
Poe was a funny guy. No, really. Underneath even his most famously grotesque tales there is almost always a joke, even if it consists in no more than Poe's mordant sending up of the Gothic conventions of which he proved himself the master. While "The Fall of the House of Usher" is an elaborately wrought exposition of Poe's recurring theme—the workings of a disturbed mind—it is all carried forward for the purpose of transmuting the title of the tale in to an elaborate pun: the decline, fall and ending of the titular family line, the House of Usher, in the concluding paragraphs coincides with the literal fall and collapse in a roaring of waters of the storm-wracked great and awful edifice that was the family's perpetual home, the house of the Ushers.
Most of Poe's disturbed-mind tales are told in the voice of the possessor of the mind in question, a narrator never to be trusted. "Usher" differs in having a surviving, ostensibly sane and seemingly reliable teller. As a result, unlike those other Poe stories and unlike the psychological puzzle box of James's "The Turn of the Screw," we are asked to accept that the grim events in the Usher manse actually occur as described.
When Britten adapted James for the opera stage, he and his librettist chose to have the ghosts be really, truly ghosts. Philip Glass and his librettist Arthur Yorinks chose the opposite course: everything and everyone in Usher may or may not exist at all outside of someone's fevered imagination. In particular Roderick Usher's twin sister Madeleine, whose existence Poe's narrator affirms and whose escape from premature entombment brings on the story's final crisis, becomes a phantasm, a symbolist figment—of Roderick's? of his visiting friend? who can say?—wordlessly singing onstage, seeking attention but never seen or engaged by others.
For Long Beach Opera, director Ken Cazan ventures the theory that the prevailing morbid aura chez Usher—personified and manifested in part in the figure of Madeleine—stems from a virulently repressed homosexuality, a self-destructive refusal by Roderick or his friend or both to acknowledge their truest nature. The staging dangles the further possibility that neither Roderick nor Madeleine—who are partial to sharing one another's lip gloss and filmy loungewear—is anything more than a dream projection, the product of their visitor's conflicted identity. No pat or "correct" answers to the mysteries of the House are on offer. Like the story from which it was drawn, this Usher stands in the end as a self-contained recursive object to be held up to and reexamined in the shifty light of memory.
Cazan sets the action in the present day—in the opening moments the friend, William, receives Roderick's plea to pay a visit via his iPad—but ageless Gothic atmosphere envelopes the House and its occupant(s). The House has a sentient life of its own as well, embodied in eight leatherclad bemohawked Goth supernumeraries moving its walls, corridors and doorways about as in some David Lynch version of Hogwarts. (All that leather, and the stark play of light and shadow on the architectural elements, is reminiscent of the underworld and the biker boy servants of Death in Jean Cocteau's Orphee, another work later adapted to opera by Philip Glass.) Coffin-like transparent boxes, overlit from within like a Jeff Koons vitrine, serve as dining tables, William's uneasy bed and, naturally, Madeleine's sarcophagus. A small metal music box—an innovation not mentioned in the story—repels Roderick with its tinkling but holds an unhealthy fascination for his twin, its shape echoed in the larger fixtures. A cyclorama sky provides the requisite dark and stormy night.
The arpeggios and percussive bursts of the score are immediately recognizable as originating with Philip Glass, the compact string and woodwind orchestra supplemented by an unexpectedly lyrical acoustic guitar. The chords weigh as heavily as the stones of the rotting estate, and suffuse the already hazy atmosphere with ample gloom.
As Roderick, Ryan MacPherson suffers mightily, one moment cringingly immobile, the next violently assertive in his demands, yearning and uncompromising by turns as he spirals toward his ultimate dissolution. Lee Gregory's William is an earnest innocent increasingly enmeshed in a place, and an emotional maelstrom, he can barely understand or fears to confront. Both perform with power, conviction and commitment.
Suzan Hanson's Madeleine—a role she originated in the opera's original production for American Repertory Theater—is a sort of wistful succubus. She has no words to sing and is granted only a single vowel with which to make herself known, which she does unerringly in a richly physical performance. Crawling, clambering, sinuously enveloping the male characters in her seeming invisibility, eventually kicking her way out of the family crypt with her bright red shoes, Hanson is a force, whatever that force might represent. Nick Shelton and Jonathan Mack round out the principal cast, as stoic servant and an ambiguously unhelpful doctor respectively.
Dive on in, the guignol is grand.
Two performances of The Fall of the House of Usher remain: Saturday Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. and Sunday Feb. 3 at 2 p.m.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera, except top: a fragment of the Usher score, photo by the blogger.