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Review: Long Beach Opera charts 'The Fall of the House of Usher'

January 28, 2013|By Richard S. Ginell
  • Suzan Hanson portrays Madeline Usher in the Long Beach Opera production of Philip Glass' chamber opera "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Suzan Hanson portrays Madeline Usher in the Long Beach Opera production… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Philip Glass is prolific beyond all understanding – and he keeps cranking out pieces at a clip that even his own record label, Orange Mountain Music, can’t keep up with. What that means is that there are lots of opportunities for enterprising outfits large, small and in-between to sift through Glass’ massive piles of score paper in order to score a regional premiere.  

Glass is becoming a specialty of the house for Long Beach Opera, which presented the companion operas “The Sound of a Voice” and “Hotel of Dreams” in 2006, the mighty “Akhnaten” in 2011 and on Sunday introduced the chamber opera “The Fall of the House of Usher” to the West Coast in San Pedro’s ancient, Art Deco Warner Grand Theatre.

Even for Glass aficionados, this is a rare one, for the score hasn’t been recorded yet (LBO General Director Andreas Mitisek is talking about a possible recording for this production, which travels to his other company, Chicago Opera Theatre, in late February).

So impatient local Glass fans now have something relatively fresh at hand to keep themselves occupied as they read about the concurrent production of Glass’ controversial new opera on Walt Disney, “The Perfect American,” in Madrid and breathlessly await Los Angeles Opera’s import of “Einstein on the Beach” in October. 

“The Fall of the House of Usher” dates from 1987 and is, as you would expect, based on the famous, murky Edgar Allan Poe short story. Glass would seem to be an ideal composer for this sort of thing; you could just hear typical brooding, ominous, repetitive, minor-key Glass patterns in your head before even setting foot in the theater. 

That’s what you get, economically scored for a string quintet, three winds, horn, percussion and Poe’s designated guitar – but it’s not top-drawer Glass, by and large. 

We don’t hear much beyond routine underscoring until the passage when Roderick Usher and William lay eyes on each other for the first time. Roderick’s deathly ill sister Madeline does not sing text at all; hers is a wordless vocalise part that contributes to the weird atmosphere.

Fortunately, Glass’ theatrical instincts kick in near the close as he slowly and cunningly screws up the level of tension. 

There are enough things left unsaid in Poe’s story – as well as insinuations in Arthur Yorinks’ libretto – for stage director Ken Cazan to impose a gay context on the plot that sort of works. Roderick calls William to the Usher house, there is strong mutual attraction, but Roderick is conflicted, repressed by his august family tradition. 

Cazan speculates in the program booklet that Madeline may represent Roderick’s repressed feminine side, but the way it was staged, one could easily think that Madeline has romantic designs on her brother (and possibly William too?) and takes her jealous revenge at the end. 

Whatever Cazan had in mind, it was neatly executed. As William toyed with an iPad at the start, you knew that the production occurs in the present time – and various punked-out supernumeraries pushed and rearranged simulated concrete blocks, seats and fluorescent-lighted display cases, effectively filling the long instrumental stretches when Glass is just spinning his wheels.

Baritone Lee Gregory and tenor Ryan MacPherson were fine as William and Roderick, respectively; soprano Suzan Hanson (Madeline) sang full-blooded, voluptuous vocalises, moving gracefully like a dancer; and tenor Jonathan Mack made brief, memorable appearances as Roderick’s “Dr. Feelgood” physician. 

The pit band played the Glassian patterns and effects very well under Mitisek’s direction – and with a handful of cuts in play, the performance came in at just under 78 minutes, short of the designated 90 minutes.  

ALSO:

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Benjamin Millepied talks about leaving L.A. dance for Paris

A 'Rite of Spring' that Nijinsky and Stravinsky would recognize

Long Beach Opera in Philip Glass’ “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro; 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $29-$160; (562) 432-5934 or www.longbeachopera.org 

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