WNO: The Fall of the House of Usher


Birmingham Hippodrome, 20 June 2014

Edgar Allan Poe has cast his shadow across many artists in the early twentieth century, particularly in the cinema. It is strange therefore that there should have been so few attempts to draw out an operatic version of The Fall of the House of Usher.

WNO have recently drawn together two settings – Gordon Getty’s one act opera and a reconstruction by Robert Orledge of Debussy’s remaining fragments. Neither is totally satisfactory. Gordon Getty bases his approach on a new text which relies heavily on dialogue – not a feature of the original – and music which is supportive but unmemorable. While the massive projections from Penrhyn Castle are impressive, the action within them is too often limp and lacking in atmosphere. While Jason Bridges cuts a dash as Poe, Benjamin Bevan seemed ill at ease as Roderick and there was little sense of a deeply troubled personality. Kevin Short’s Dr Primus made a stranger impression though his character was created for the opera and drains any focus away from Roderick.

Debussy may not have completed his opera but the chunks we do have and the reworking make for a more substantial and atmospheric piece. The focus here is entirely on Roderick, subtly characterised by Robert Hayward, as he slips ever further into madness. William Dazeley as his friend is at a loss to either understand or to help, and his frustration is finely caught. Anna Gorbachyova has little to do as Madeline but sets the tone of tension and suspense in the opening scene. The video projections were far more apt in this second half, focussing on details of the massive columns, dominating the stage like a vast Egyptian temple, oppressing the mere mortals who scuttle within its shadows.

The orchestra was in good form under Lawrence Foster, though even the Debussy produced little that was really memorable on a first hearing.

Philip Glass has a version of The Fall of the House of Usher which was brilliantly staged by Music Theatre Wales some years ago. It might have made a better companion piece to the Debussy and a more satisfactory evening.

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