Is there a more exciting opera company than Long Beach Opera in Southern California – or even anywhere west of Santa Fe? With the Dorothy Chandler’s house company and even local opera outfits seemingly content with just cranking out production after production of the same three Puccini operas ad infinitum and often ad nauseum, it’s heartening to see a company that views opera not as a dusty museum piece, but as a living art form capable of speaking to contemporary interests. Even when they stumble – and Long Beach Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher was more miss than hit – it still proves to be a more fascinating and satisfying experience than sitting through the umpteenth Madama Butterfly.
Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tale of madness and (implied) incest has seized the attention of other composers in the past. Debussy spent his last decade working on his own adaptation – which remained unfinished at his death. Glass, with his obsessive chugging rhythms and eerie major/minor modulations, seems a perfect fit for Poe. It is, in fact – but it also isn’t the composer’s best work.
Glass demonstrates in the best of his operas – think Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten, or Appomattox – to be one of the great musical dramatists of this or any age. In his 1987 Usher, however, his music never does anything more than maintain and reiterate the vaguely ominous mood of the story. The characters are never developed in any meaningful way (Madeleine sings entirely in a wordless vocalise). From beginning to end the score is stubbornly stuck in ambient music mode.
The production by Long Beach Opera, too, was something of a misfire. The sets by Alan E. Muraoka and the lighting by David Jacques were wonderfully evocative. Director Ken Cazan’s bold relief vision of the incest and gay subtext in Arthur Yorinks’ libretto, on the other hand, would have worked better had it not been executed so clumsily. The all-clothes-on, high-school-style dry humping that purported to be a sex scene was especially silly. You also had to wonder why the principal characters were bedecked as if they were the vampires from Twilight after they raided the bargain bins at their local Forever 21. Then there were the silent stage hands that moved the scenery around while the action was in progress. Why were they all dressed as late-1990s Goth kid stereotypes, no doubt eagerly awaiting the new Marilyn Manson album?
Musically the production was a success. Baritone Lee Gregory and tenor Ryan MacPherson were both excellent as William and Roderick. Soprano Suzan Hanson made the most of her vocalises, though one wished the music had put her opulent voice to better use. Tenor Jonathan Mack brought the right amount of confusion and uneasiness to his role and the resonant bass-baritone of Nicholas Shelton was, despite his too brief appearances in the work, a joy to hear.
The chamber ensemble in the pit, conducted by Andreas Mitisek, made the most of Glass’ ostinati and arpeggios, rendering the score with grace and aplomb.