Edgar Allen Poe’s famous tale of the macabre is an allegory about the interconnectedness between people and things. That our joys (and in this tale, miseries) are not just within us but also inhabit the people and objects around us.
My first experience with this story was watching a made for TV miniseries in the 1980’s.* We watched it in a house of rugs, wallpaper, and warmth held together by the gravity of my grandparents and small dog. Remembering that I love opera and have a flight home tomorrow my cousin, who doesn’t remember the miniseries, went out of her way to secure us tickets for the final dress rehearsal of Orpheus PDX’s production of The Fall of the House of Usher.
Tonight’s staging reminds me so much of David Hockney’s early paintings. The architecture, wardrobe, projections of water, and even the two palm trees very much echo his artwork.
Stage director Kevin Newbury doesn’t explicitly reference the paintings, but does offer some context to help understand the opera better:
“Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a timeless psychological thriller about the intersection of shame, madness, and imagination. In our new production of Philip Glass’ 1988 operatic adaptation of the classic Poe story, the action takes place in Palm Springs, CA in the summer of 1969. When two boyhood friends reconnect in this haven for closeted Hollywood queer culture, they are forced to confront their own demons in a production that marries film noir cinema, mid-century modern architecture and the pervasive force of homophobia raging both outside (and within) the walls of the house of Usher.”
Hockney lived openly with his boyfriend in Palm Springs and celebrated the culture there in a series of paintings through the 1960’s and 1970’s. They capture perfectly the quiet undulations of Phillip Glass’ music, interspersed with the occasional splash.
Glass’ style breaks time up in such a wonderful way and I’m sorry I missed Mattaliano’s first two Glass productions. We were fortunate though to see his In the Penal Colony.
The orchestra were attentively on point tonight under the baton of Michele Rofrano. The tight repetitions and minor chords delivered an unrelenting neurotic mood with intermittent interjections from other instruments to reveal the inner worlds of the characters. There was a moment when the arpeggio beneath the vocals shifted into a sumptuous melody that dissolved my breath. The Beauty quickly quickly returned to Glass’ signature repetition. We turned to one another with wide eyed nods of approval.
Steven and Timothy convincingly convey the contradictions of frustration and flirtation between Rodrick and William, but ultimately of the regret that even within the safe space of The House of Usher the world beyond has imposed a psychological damage and fate they can’t avoid. There was a moment when Timothy caresses Stevens back and his vocal response hits a very effecting note that made me recall yet another Hockney painting.
Holly Flak got to flex her vocals more tonight than in her earlier role as Eurydice in L’Orfeo. She rode the undulations of Glass’ score and reached the peaks of her range. I smiled when she broke the fourth wall in the final act with a look at the audience as if to say, you know what’s coming next. And, having read Poe’s story earlier in the day, I did.
The original text is full of suggestion and innuendo and lends itself beautifully to interpretation. I liked tonight’s choices very much but I recommend reading Poe’s original story after seeing the production, not before. I read it earlier in the day at Powell’s book store and it took me out of the narrative flow each time their was a choice not explictely in the original text.
Bibliophiles already know Powells is the five story book store that takes up an entire city block in Portland. What they might not know is Portland for me is an easy place to be myself (and while the house stands) a good place to enjoy life and coffee shops with comforting family and two operatic chihuahuas.
David Hockney also loved his dogs. He painted them with the same passion Monet painted water lilies or El Greco, Christs. They celebrate the quirky uninhibited joy that only a dog can bring to a home. Imagine the happier story Poe might have written if Rodrick Usher had only had a dog.
So What’s The Fall of the House of Usher all about? Hollywood star and his twin are suffering in their Palm Springs house when Rodrick Usher calls upon his old friend William to visit. They relive their past relationship and traumas. https://orpheuspdx.org/events/usher-2022/
*In 1982 there was a made for TV mini-series about The Fall of the House of Usher, I loved it – an introduction to the macabre. The reviews are less positive and it leaves me thinking of why would anyone write a negative review that criticizes a work of art and more importantly why do I read them. There so much, like dogs and literature, to celebrate.
When I visit art galleries and museums I’m often critical of the art, but I never say those thoughts out loud for fear of denegrating someone else’s positive experience.
Notes on the Production
Composer………….. Phillip Glass
Madeline…………….… Holly Flak
Rodrick Usher…….…. Steven Brennflek
William………………… Timothy McDevitt
Friend………………..… Gregory Brummfeild
Physician………………. Scot Crandall
Conductor………….….. Michele Rofrano
Artistic Director……………Christopher Mattaliano
Director………………………. Kevin Newbury
Set Design……………………. Daniel Meeker
Costume Design……………..Alison Heryer
Lighting Design……………..Connie Yun
Video Design………………….Greg Emetaz