REVIEW: 'Fall of the House of Usher' at Nashville Opera

REVIEW: 'Fall of the House of Usher' at Nashville Opera

Disturbingly dark and awesomely foreboding, evil is certain to lurk behind the walls of the House of Usher. Springing from the fertile imagination of legendary American author Edgar Allan Poe, and re-created now as an opera by the wildly expressive Philip Glass, Nashville Opera's production of The Fall of the House of Usher represents a courageous leap of artistic faith for the company's creative brain trust.

And with its mesmerizing staging conceived by director John Hoomes and production designer Barry Steele, Nashville Opera soars - bringing a brilliant production to the stage of the James K. Polk Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Shocking and riveting, provocative and challenging, this opera leaves its audience stunned and spent, grateful to have witnessed an artistic triumph of such extraordinary proportions.

Glass' haunting score - using amplified instrumentation at the composer's behest - and Arthur Yorinks' libretto - exemplary in its storytelling - are faithful to Poe's original work, without being slavish. The dark story, told at its nightmarish best, focuses on the evil that resides within the walls of the Usher mansion (built, we are told, from tombstones) and the madness and depravity it visits upon the house's inhabitants. While Poe's story leaves some details to the imagination of the reader, Glass and Yorinks effectively bring to life the more disturbing aspects of the Usher family's secrets.

But it is the production concept and design created by the amazingly gifted Hoomes and Steele that really sets this production apart from others. The opera's action is presented on a raised platform on the Polk stage, with a scrim in front of the singers and a screen behind them, allowing a stunning visual design that propels the story, intimately involving the audience in the onstage travails. Bringing a 21st century sensibility to the 19th century story, Hoomes and Steele have created an auspicious video that projects images - often jarring, sometimes even soothing, always provocative - on the screens, enveloping the cast and further amplifying, if you will, the themes expressed in Poe's story.

That story is told through the eyes of William, a childhood friend of Roderick Usher, who receives a letter from his old chum, imploring him to come to the House of Usher. William fairly flies to Roderick's side, hoping to aid his old friend. Roderick, however, seems perplexed by William's arrival: "Why did you come?" he asks. "We were never that close as children." William seems as confused by the query as is the audience, unable to give an answer.

William's answer comes during his quiet, tender scenes with Roderick, as he attempts to comfort his old friend (rendered helpless and in pain by the sound of a music box brought by William as a gift for his host), the homoerotic undertones of the story becoming more overtly felt. When William's sleep is upended by nightmares in which he witnesses hints of an incestuous relationship between Roderick and his sister Madeline (whose existence is heretofore unknown to William), he tries to divine the truths of the Usher family.

The very modernity of Poe's writing is underscored by Glass' percussive score (performed brilliantly by the Nashville Opera Orchestra under conductor William Boggs), with its flashes of beauty and horror, and the characters' relationships are brought startlingly to life by a superb cast of singers. Baritone Lee Gregory's exquisite voice and stellar acting make William an empathetic protagonist with whom the audience can readily identify, while Vale Rideout's achingly clear tenor perfectly captures Roderick's growing madness and the intensity of his grief. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan, as Madeline Usher, has an exceptionally expressive voice and her performance is unsettling and searing in its power. To say the three are perfectly cast sounds hollow and pandering, but clearly they are.

Tenor Paul Dawson, as the Usher family physician (interestingly, in these times of concierge doctors to the rich and famous, we find it's really a time-honored practice, apparently), is in fine voice and gives a strong performance, as does bass J. Paul Roark as the House of Usher's major domo.

With its three-performance run at TPAC far too fleeting, Nashville audiences will find themselves settling into two camps: those who witnessed The Fall of the House of Usher (and were so movingly startled by the expert recreation of Poe's story and the evocative updating of it for a contemporary audience) and those who, for whatever the reason, missed the stunningly compelling production. We can only hope for a revival in coming seasons.

- The Fall of the House of Usher. Music by Philip Glass. Book by Arthur Yorinks and Philip Glass. Lyrics by Arthurs Yorinks. Directed by John Hoomes. Conducted by William Boggs. Production designed by Barry Steele. Presented by Nashville Opera at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre, Nashville. November 13-15.

photo of Vale Rideout and Lee Gregory by ReEd Hummell

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor outstanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror. In 2015, he directed William Inge's Picnic for Circle Players and The Last Five Years for VWA Theatricals, with The Larry Keeton Theatre's production of The Miss Firecracker Contest set for spring 2016.


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