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.