The Fall of the House of Usher
by Philip Glass
A production of Chicago Opera Theater
Directed by Ken Cazan
Andreas Mitisek, Conductor
I still remember the vibrant and meaningful production of Monteverdi’s 1607 “Orfeo,” back in 2000. Brian Dickie set the Chicago Opera Theater in a new direction when he combined a British Mozart specialist in the orchestra pit with a new-to-the-genre downtown New York theater director handling the interpretation.
Sunday afternoon I attended an equally memorable production led by new General Director Andreas Mitisek. He proffered a rare treat, the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass’ 1987 take on the Edgar Allan Poe tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Mitisek himself led the 13-member chamber ensemble of local musicians; Ken Cazan, who had also worked with Dickie, created an appropriately sensual and dark interpretation of the strange story on the stage.
The aspect of the production that impressed me the most was the almost lyrical score by Philip Glass. His music matched the mood moment to moment and rivalled larger works like the earlier Monteverdi or Verdi (who we will see in a production of his "Joan of Arc" in September). Glass's music provided the drama with strong singing design and focus.
But the rest of the production was excellent also. The music of Glass with its looping, minimal and intentionally repetitive sounds it conjures up can be difficult for some opera-goers. But this 80-minute chamber piece is a tightly focused explication of the Poe story of a young man who finds himself compelled to answer a cry for help by a wealthy, brilliant and disturbed childhood friend who is the last of his line.
Poe’s story never makes clear why the man does so, coming close to sacrificing his life, and librettist Arthur Yorinks leaves the question open. Cazan answers it, in your face but reasonably: The visitor William and the heir Roderick Usher have a sexual and emotional attraction. The possibly imaginary Madeline Usher, whether Roderick’s twin or hallucination, expresses the drug-added artist’s very mixed and complex longings.
Chicago Opera Theater once again found more than capable young lead singers, all new to Chicago Opera. Baritone Lee Gregory conveys William’s own combination of innocence and desire with a compelling voice and stage presence. Ryan MacPherson grabs Roderick’s multifaceted personality and has a tenor both strong and seductive enough to ride the score’s high passage work. Soprano Suzan Hanson, who created the role of Madeline a quarter century ago, makes her sounds and movements eerily ghostly in her wordless part -- a role that was both frightening and compelling.
Tenor Jonathan Mack as the dour Dr. Feelgood and bass-baritone Nick Shelton as the Usher family servant round out the cast. The eight silent goth young men who both move Alan E. Muraoka’s imaginatively designed modular set pieces around and menace William were both contemporary yet appropriate for the story. The movable set provided an illusion of great space inside the House of Usher while David Martin Jacques’ lighting and Jacqueline Saint Anne’s costumes moved easily across time and from fantasy and reality and back.
Greeting the audience Mitisek, in crutches and a plastic splint (a recent slip on the ice by the California arrival), he once again engaged in his delightful shtick of reading a letter from the composer. More importantly his conducting brought out the subtleties in Glass’ music, including his use of guitar (Steve Roberts), Poe’s choice for Roderick’s own instrument. He’s off to a personal, provocative start and Chicago Opera Theater is vibrantly better than ever.