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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1988) [82.48]
Jonas Hacker (tenor) – Roderick Usher, Ben Edquist (baritone) – William, Madison Leonard (soprano) – Madeline Usher, Matthew Adam Fleischer (bass) – Servant, Nicholas Nestorak (tenor) – Physician
Inscape Chamber Orchestra/Joseph Li
rec. 2017, The Barns at Wolf Trap, USA
ORANGE MOUNTAIN MUSIC OMM0138 [49.19 + 33.29]

One can understand the wish of American critics to promote the work of Edgar Allan Poe as one of the pioneers of fiction in the New World, but during his short life (he died at the age of forty) his principal contribution was limited to his poetry and his short stories which only gradually established an international reputation after his death, thanks in particular to some excellent translations by the likes of Baudelaire and Mallarmé in France. Indeed, in some ways Baudelaire’s version of La chute de la Maison Usher improved on Poe’s original, maintaining the dark and sinister atmosphere while avoiding his flamboyantly over-the-top and frequently overheated English. The fascination of the nineteenth century with the subject of premature burial was not unjustified in an era when tests to determine death were far from infallible, and the nature of the comatose state was hazily understood at best; but that really is the only subject of this macabre tale, and the failure of Poe to provide any dialogue for his characters until the final pages of his story would (one might have thought) have deterred any composer wishing to treat the subject operatically.

Not that this has stopped composers trying. Debussy at the time of his death had completed most of an opening scene and several extracts from later in a projected work, leaving a whole raft of sketches in various stages of completion. During the 1970s attempts were made to put these into performable conduction by Chilean scholar Juan Allende-Blin, and in 2014 Welsh National Opera staged a new realisation of the work by Robert Orledge. Even here, Debussy’s vocal lines had often to be supplied by the editor, and there were places where the composer had clearly been more fascinated by the orchestral evocation of atmosphere than considerations for his singers. The WNO production was given as part of a double bill with a new setting of Poe’s story by Gordon Getty (under the title Usher House) where the composer had attempted to impose a more logical structure on Poe’s original furnishing some explanations for example onto the origins of the house itself (and incidentally explaining its collapse at the end) as well as past background on the protagonists. Although the result displayed a greater security of dramatic pacing than Getty’s other operas such as Plump Jack or The Canterville Ghost, the need to supply these additional clarifications pointed up the dramatic deficiencies of the story itself, as well as leading to a superfluity of text which had to be delivered.

Over twenty years earlier, Glass and his librettist Arthur Yorinks eschewed the temptation to expand on Poe’s original but nevertheless contrived to produce a work which is of considerably greater length than Getty’s treatment, largely as a result of more leisurely pacing. The initial impression of the listener might be that Glass would emphasise the obsessive nature of Roderick Usher’s premonitions and visions through the use of minimalist patterning, but in the event, there is more dramatic incident and variety than one might have expected. The opera opens with spoken dialogue, which we are told in the booklet is to be delivered by a speaker offstage; but in this performance, taken from live presentations at Wolf Trap Opera, the voice is very definitely close to the listener. There is a similar lack of distancing later, where the vocalises of the unfortunate Madeleine Usher are also very present in the balance to an extent that the listener wonders why she is deprived of words when the other two singers and their dialogue appear to be on exactly the same aural plane. In fact, this operatic trio, where tenor and baritone soloists are haunted by the ethereal voice, is one of the most immediately beautiful sections of the score, and one can only imagine that it might have been even more effective if the composer’s evident intentions had been respected.

The opening of Act Two suddenly shifts the drama and the music onto a new level, with a highly atmospheric orchestral prelude of over five minutes leading directly into the first scene with which it shares its musical material, constituting a musical movement of nearly a quarter of an hour which conjures exactly the right sense of doom and foreboding. The music for the storm which rages through the two final scenes has an unfortunate tendency to degenerate into strident percussive rhythms, which serve well as an illustration of the knocking of the undead Madeline at the door but don’t really gel with the atmosphere of the rain depicted elsewhere in the orchestration.

The singing, with its young cast, is generally very good with clear and trenchant delivery of the dialogue, albeit with a lack of any really quiet delivery. That could be the result of the recorded balance to which I have already referred; although the recording was apparently made in conjunction with a stage production, there are no audience noises or any other signs of live performance, and the booklet contains a photograph which unequivocally shows the five principal singers lined up in front of music stands as if for a concert presentation. One wonders why under the circumstances credit is given on the cover of the set to a choreographer and stage managers when there is absolutely no evidence of their contribution to the audible proceedings. Most of the singing devolves on Jonas Hacker and Ben Edquist, both of them firm and dramatic; and Madison Leonard delivers her lengthy wordless vocal lines (frequently demanding in their high range) with assurance if overmuch physical presence. The conducting of Joseph Li is accurate rather than dramatically involved (but that is the nature of Glass’s operas); and the playing of the chamber orchestra is generally excellent, even though the horn is slightly too prominent in the balance during the atmospheric Act Two prelude.

The two booklets come complete with illustrations from the production, which indicate an approach to the text which derives closely from the genre of the horror film, if not the actual Rocky Horror Show, and this sits somewhat uneasily with the more psychological nature of the story itself. But comprehension is not assisted by the printed layout of the dialogue in the second booklet, which is sometimes misleading and occasionally out-and-out inaccurate, with some lines in Act One bodily transposed and others simply omitted. The track listing – with one track for each of the ten scenes as well as the instrumental preludes – is confined to a schedule on the gatefold sleeve itself; the biographies of the cast, as well as the librettist, choreographer and director, are given in the other booklet. There is no provided synopsis of the action, or any information regarding the opera itself or its previous performance history, which would have been interesting if not specifically useful. All of the material is exclusively in English. The packaging, with the two booklets enclosed in pockets at each end of the gatefold sleeve which contains the two CDs, is elegant and smart although the actual physical business of getting the booklets in and out of their enclosures is finicky.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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