Debussy completed only one opera in his 55 years, the scandalous and tragic love triangle of Pelléas et Mélisande. What he might have done with the dread and heartbreak of Edgar Allan Poe we can only speculate. Annelies Van Parys and Gaea Schoeters' attempt at rebuilding Debussy’s abandoned treatment of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher leaves us to continue wondering.

Daniel Arnaldos (Doctor) and Alexandra Büchel (Madeline)
© Annemie Augustijns

Philippe Quesne's staging for Opera Vlaanderen (previously seen at Staatsoper Berlin), which streamed online on Saturday, opened with the doomed Lady Madeline Usher painting the walls with a roller in the likewise doomed house, suggesting from the outset that this would be a very different telling of the story. And indeed it would almost have to be to fill 90 minutes. There’s actually not much to Poe’s tale. The devil, so to speak, is in the prose, not the details, which through translation and elongation was lost here. Debussy knew Poe’s tale through Baudelaire’s translation, so the prose was already once removed before he wrote his libretto. Composer Annelies Van Parys and librettist Gaea Schoeters worked from both the Baudelaire and the Debussy texts in creating their adaptation. The story isn’t lost in multiple translations, but the darl beauty of the original seems to have been misplaced. 

Alexandra Büchel (Madeline)
© Annemie Augustijns

While Madeline plays a small but key role in the original text, she was onstage much of the time in Quesne's staging, which is just as well because soprano Alexandra Büchel as the doomed sister turned in the most memorable performance in this largely forgettable reworking and revision of Debussy’s aborted opera. Her rising from death (the first time, as it turned out – she would die again in a blood-spilling reminiscent of the 1976 horror movie Carrie) was the one compelling scene. Büchel’s fragile soubrette almost disappeared like the apparition Madeline was. Here, too, the orchestration at last stepped in, echoing her one moment, undermining her the next. It felt as if the preceding 70 minutes had been held at bay to allow this moment to have an incandescent shimmer.

Daniel Arnaldos (Doctor), Alexandra Büchel (Madeline) and Martin Gerke (Friend)
© Annemie Augustijns

The first two-thirds of the show were drawn out, building empty suspense and casting shadows in every nook and cranny of the story, which didn’t serve to push the plot. Like the narrative, the music stretched unnecessarily, wandering vocal lines backed but not quite supported by the cinematic flairs of the score. The performances were certainly serviceable, the cast presumably having made the most of what was given to them. But despite the purported ’70s horror movie influence, the actors displayed a 19th-century emotional reserve altogether out of step with Romero, Craven and Toby Hooper, even Polanski or William Friedkin. The set, too, was uncomfortable and ill-fitting, a family home that didn’t look lived in; indeed, it seemed still to be under construction, with small and unexplained video monitors scattered about that flashed with moments of relevant action, occasionally filling the viewing screen. 

Ivan Thirion (Roderick Usher) and Alexandra Büchel (Madeline)
© Annemie Augustijns

The question, however, isn’t if Van Parys and Schoeters did right by Poe so much as if they did right by Debussy. Poe’s tale has endured no end of retellings, from Roger Corman and Jan Švankmajer films to operatic treatments by Philip Glass and rocker Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator. Poe will prevail and Debussy’s opera remains unfinished. Pelléas et Mélisande is slow, suspenseful and wonderful. It moves with purpose and is carried by the music, not dragged down by it. It’s a shame Debussy abandoned Usher, because his pastoral horror would have been more memorable by far. 


This performance was reviewed from the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen live video stream