Review: Opera Maine captures the mystery and menace of Poe with music
A large crowd risked a chilling trip through the imagination of Edgar Allen Poe on Wednesday night as they stepped out to watch a performance of ‘The Fall of the Usher House’, a chamber opera by Philip Glass, performed at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.
Presented by Opera Maine’s Studio Artists program for young professionals, the 1988 work attempts to musically update, with a libretto by Arthur Yorinks, the mystery and menace found in the prose of the same gothic novella. Poe’s title about a horribly declining historical family. .
The 1839 story has been the subject of many interpretations over the years, and Glass, Yorinks and, in turn, Maine Opera Director Richard Gammon have chosen to develop more openly certain avenues of understanding that were only sketched out in the original work of the great author. Let’s say some desires are made a little less ambiguous.
According to the basic story, a man named William is summoned by his old friend Roderick Usher, a recluse who appears to be in physical and mental distress, to a decaying mansion where Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline, reside. Madeline, also apparently with an undiagnosed illness, appears to pass away and the two men solemnly bury her. But Madeline isn’t quite done yet and returns for a chilling finale.
Although brief moments of softer lyricism pass, the mostly stress-infused vocal performances were uniformly compelling on opening night (the first of only two performances). Baritone Marcel Sokalski is a questioning and confused William who eventually discovers that his own intentions are doubly complicated. Tenor Joseph Tancredi is a brooding, alcoholic Roderick who is lost in contemplation of the dire state of the Usher lineage and his own identity. Soprano Gabrielle Clutter is a dangerously seductive Madeline. Her wordless voice haunts the men on the minimal set which very significantly features a bed.
Glass’ slow, rhythmic music creates an eerie atmosphere that only intensifies as dark, prodigious patterns emerge from the 12-member orchestra, led by Jackson McKinnon, who sits below the ledge of the stage. Although some seem forever immune to its charms, Glass’ instrumental music here vastly enhances the onstage action and is an all-too-rare treat to hear in Maine.
Although sung in English, the production includes supertitles as well as stylized videos and stills of the performers, designed by SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal, in various tree-lined outdoor locations.
Miguel Pedroza and Joseph Sacchi played minor roles, with Sacchi briefly unleashing a very big voice.
Poe purists can quibble. But this Opera Maine production still hits the author’s way of delivering a kind of piercing discomfort. Pair that with the opportunity to hear well-acted and well-sung live music by Philip Glass, and you have the makings of an engrossing 90 minutes at the opera.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer living in Portland.
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