Reviewed by Tom Lawler
There are good reasons a story like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of User endures. For starters, it’s the genre it helped popularize. A key 19th-century work that brought the Gothic and horror story from its Germanic origins into the Victorian age (it was penned before Bram Stroker’s Dracula) and arguably Poe’s greatest achievement, Usher is a masterpiece of gradually increasing gloom and horror. Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher likewise delivers a beautifully composed nightmare that unites the composer’s swirling and menacing strings with COT’s trademark sleek and modern staging.
In Usher, the setting must live as its own character. Director Ken Cazan (with invaluable collaborations from his creative team: set designer Alan E. Muraoka, costume designer Jacqueline Saint Anne and lighting designer David Martin Jacques) take special care in rendering the haunted Usher mansion as massive stone archways accentuated by tattered silks, low lighting and menacing shadows, and costume design that takes its cues from both the classic Hammer horror films and today’s latest club wear. These Usher “stones” are pushed and reconfigured throughout the production by a cast of black-clad performers who not only help carry the Goth theme into the modern age (as in mohawks, eyeliner and leather) but also embody Poe’s original description of the Usher edifice as a living, menacing thing.
Furthermore, in Poe’s story, the Usher mansion was said to have been constructed from unused tombstones, and it can’t hurt that this production is being staged in the crypt-like Harris Theater – a state-of-the-art venue for any production but nonetheless a gray, concrete-clad performance space three stories below Randolph Street.
Hewing close to the original story, Usher begins as the narrator receives a letter from an ailing childhood friend, Roderick Usher (his first name roughly translates from the Germanic as “last of the Goths”), who desperately asks him to visit. Roderick’s friend (named “Will” in this production) doesn’t hesitate to go – compelled both by the mystery of what’s happened to the last remaining male of the Usher family and the urgent nature of this summons.
In his director’s notes in the program, Cazan attributes another motivation for Will’s visit: an interest in consummating an unfulfilled homosexual relationship from their youth. It’s an interesting choice – and a controversial one. Whereas in the original story, Usher was suffering from a litany of mental maladies, it’s fair to ask if Cazan is conflating mental disorder with repressed homosexuality – or at least questioning if Poe may have more explicitly explored these themes in a more modern time. Indeed, Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline, who lived alone with her brother in the decaying mansion in the original Poe work, may not even be real in this Usher but instead in the director’s words, only embody “the feminine side of Roderick which he is trying to suppress.”
Whether or not you agree with this critic or Cazan’s interpretation of Poe’s masterwork, there’s no denying the majesty of Philip Glass’ score – and COT’s expert execution of it. Composed in 1987, Glass’s chord patterns (and particularly his bass violin and oboe progressions) are instantly accessible and reminiscent of his later soundtracks for several Errol Morris film documentaries – particularly 1988’s Thin Blue Line.
CTO’s 13-piece orchestra (conducted by CTO General Director Andreas Mitisek) fills the Harris with Glass’s trademark repeating melodies and counter melodies that both accentuate and leaven the encroaching gloom and doom of Usher. The opera’s stalwart cast, led by Ryan MacPherson (Roderick), Lee Gregory (William) and Suzan Hanson (Madeline), are all dynamic presences who are able to sing powerfully over Glass’ opus while also contributing full-fleshed performances in service of this story of a doomed aristocrat going mad who is eventually destroyed by his demons. Like the character of Will, we are drawn into this hermetic world of rotting grandeur and it’s easy to see why he abandons his mission of rescuing his childhood friend and instead makes himself over in Roderick’s image as a way to seduce him.
What Usher lacks in a flashy finale as Roderick finally meets his tragic demise is completely in keeping with Glass’s score which is not, after all, about valleys, peaks and crescendos, but instead sustained patterns of glorious gloom. It’s a feeling that stays with you after the curtain call and doesn’t immediately leave you as you grasp your date’s hand, climb three sets of stairs out the Harris Theater and venture out into the dark.
Running Time: 80 minutes without an intermission.
At the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph
Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Arthur Yorinks, based on the short story by Edgar Allen Poe
Directed by Ken Kazan
February 24 at 3pm, February 27 and March 1 at 7:30pm
Buy tickets at chicagooperatheater.org or call 312.704.8414