It would seem like a dreadful idea to present the same story twice in quick succession, as San Francisco Opera’s The Fall of the House of Usher double bill promises to do. Yet these two American premières (Getty’s Usher House and Orledge’s completion of Debussy’s La Chute de la Maison Usher) are so distinct, dramatically and musically, that they never seem repetitive. Both short operas are suspenseful and engaging.

Jason Bridges (Edgar Allan Poe in <i>Usher House</i>) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Jason Bridges (Edgar Allan Poe in Usher House)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Neither opera stays true to the Poe short story on which they are based. Getty’s piece takes a magical horror turn, with the noble Roderick and Madeline Usher and their honorable visitor Poe fighting the dark forces of Doctor Primus, possibly the resurrected founder of Usher House. Primus manipulates Madeline (and, in one scene, Poe) like a puppet and schemes to re-establish the House with a focus on the mystical secrets of life and death. An interdict by Edward the Confessor hangs over the Ushers, and Madeline’s pure resistance to Primus’ temptations results in the completion of the interdict and the fall of the house. Debussy’s drama is more psychological. Roderick is oppressed by isolation and forebodings rather than a discrete magical influence. His sister Madeline, whom he “loves too much”, is buried alive without his knowledge by the jealous doctor.

<i>Usher House</i> © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Usher House
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The differences extend to the opera’s musical idioms. Usher House is orchestrally minimal, with most of the focus left on exposed vocal lines. Chords and sound effects boom between stints of pitched, ascending declamation. This keeps the English text clear and shows off the beauty of the voices. Chute, in contrast, is texturally lush, but with long stretches of spoken recitation that stand out among the lyrical songs. During those, the voices seem less primary and more like a part of the orchestral musical landscape, without ever getting lost in it.

Brian Mulligan (Roderick Usher in <i>La Chute de la Maison Usher</i>) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Brian Mulligan (Roderick Usher in La Chute de la Maison Usher)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Brian Mulligan stands at the center of both pieces as the unfortunate Roderick Usher. His rich baritone voice is shown off most clearly by Getty’s music, which also offers him chances to exercise a relaxed, smooth upper extension. Debussy’s music ranges lower and sometimes left Mulligan sounding croaky or covered. In Usher House, Jason Bridges astounds as Edgar Allan Poe, with a clear, bright sound and an almost haute-contre quality on the role’s highest notes. Anthony Reed’s dark bass voice and scheming demeanor as Doctor Primus provides a nice contrast.

Madeline is danced with frantic energy and and chaotic precision by Jamielyn Duggan. Her few melodies (after her escape from her tomb) are sung from off-stage by soprano Jacqueline Piccolino, who has a better chance to demonstrate her instrument’s purity and flexibility in the gorgeous opening song of Debussy’s work. The cast of Chute excels dramatically; Mulligan is an unsettling Roderick, and Edward Nelson recites a gripping “Mad Tryst”. But in a theatrical coup, tenor Joel Sorenson’s doctor, with his strange eyebrows, grapevine walk, and convulsive gestures, is paradoxically both the funniest and the most sinister character of all.

Director David Pountney unifies the two works with similar stagings. Projections by David Haneke (filmed onsite at a Welsh castle) lead us seamlessly through the two visions of Usher House as the action progresses. The interior shots for Getty’s opera feel enviably grand, while the cold stone exteriors for Debussy’s opera reflect Roderick’s intense sense of isolation. Both works also end in onstage rain while the house collapses. Poe flees from Usher House into a storm; Roderick sees the shade of his beloved sister and steps into a downpour of blood in Chute.

Under the baton of Lawrence Foster, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra delivers strong renditions of both pieces, with precise timing and dynamics in the Getty and textured, flowing lines in the Debussy. The 40-piece string section sounds especially rich in both works.

This is a rare event: two gripping premières in one night. It’s not to be missed.

****1