Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher would seem a natural for an opera: it’s got drama, tragedy, a single setting, a small number of voices and a big ending. But attempts have been rare – at least a couple since Philip Glass’ 1987 scoring with librettist Arthur Yorinks, but they seem to have been the first since Debussy abandoned his effort in 1917.

The Usher twins, Madeline and Roderick
© Operabox TV | Boston Lyric Opera

Glass and Yorinks’ Fall of the House of Usher (they drop the first article from the title) has seen a few productions since its premiere at the American Repertory Theatre, staged by director Richard Foreman. Wolf Trap Opera’s setting in a Washington, DC, warehouse in 2017 might have been the most recent before the Boston Lyric Opera included it in their 2020-2021 season. 

It turns out to have been the only production the BLO could salvage from its schedule under lockdown conditions. Director James Darrah and writer Raúl Santos have both worked in film as well as stage, and kept much of the cast and crew intact while changing course to craft a streaming production. Their realization is a work of unbridled creativity, an engrossing piece of film which, nevertheless, might have benefited from a bridle.

William rides to the Usher House
© Operabox TV | Boston Lyric Opera

In fairness, Poe’s story is vague and dreamlike and Glass’ opera contains lengthy instrumental passages that don’t advance the plot. Both invite wandering. Darrah’s and Santos’ wandering brought them to a second, entirely separate storyline about a young girl illegally crossing the Mexican border into the United States and, on top of that, an abstract musing about television realized primarily through repurposed film footage, including some disturbing imagery, suggestive of if not actually depicting violence to animals.

Poe’s story is told using stop-motion puppetry, and the immigrant’s tale via charcoal animation. The three narratives are intercut, with the music becoming the through line. It ends up seeming something like a scrimmage between artist William Kentridge and ‘supermarionation’ children’s show animator Gerry Anderson.

Luna arrives at the detention facility
© Operabox TV | Boston Lyric Opera

It was, in other words, a lot to take in, and savvy viewers would be wise to refresh themselves on Poe’s tale before hitting ‘play’. The other streams will more or less take care of themselves but with everything going on, Poe gets a bit lost in the mire. Including the music. Glass’ score holds the film together, functioning quite well in carrying all of the action. But with singers and musicians not shown, the music often functions more as soundtrack than score. It’s beautifully played, with all of the precision that Glass demands (the strict timing facilitated recording musicians one-by-one with a click track, under the supervision of Music Director David Angus) and fantastically recorded – the percussion especially pops like machine guns and music boxes. Among the cast, Chelsea Basler as Madeline and Daniel Belcher as William in particular shine.

But by the time the house comes down, the parts no longer fit. That would be more of a criticism if there were any indication that the production team thought they did, but the motives here are anything but clear. As with, say, Aldous Huxley’s novel End of the World News or Todd Haynes’ film Poison, the disconnect is to be accepted or rejected from the outset. Will failed immigration policies make America collapse like the House of Usher? Worrying about it won’t make it make sense. But letting it happen makes for an enjoyable night at the opera at home. 

 

This performance was reviewed from the Operabox TV video stream

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