Experimental and obscure operas have been finding a port of refuge with Long Beach Opera for nearly 35 years. At times the company barely scrapes by, but thankfully there are enough – although always barely enough – fierce supporters who recognize how much poorer we’d be without its reassuring presence. There was a decent turnout Sunday afternoon at the Warner Grand for the first offering of the new season: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Philip Glass.
Something of a “pocket opera,” which is to say it’s unlike “Aïda,” let alone the composer’s own “Akhnaten,” “Usher” was composed (with a libretto by Arthur Yorinks) in 1987 and is only now receiving its West Coast premiere. Despite the roominess of the Warner Grand itself, “Usher” is an intimate and one might even say claustrophobic work, and better suited to a smaller venue.
The opera follows the well known short story by Edgar Allan Poe in which Roderick Usher (Ryan MacPherson) summons a childhood friend, William (Lee Gregory), to visit him in his ancestral home. Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline (Suzan Hanson), is ailing and will soon die – although, of course, this being Poe, she is accidentally buried alive and later reemerges to scare the pants off her brother, who himself dies of fright.
In appearance more vamp than vampire, Madeline sings wordless vocalises, more cries and whispers than soaring arias, and where Hanson is most memorable is when she tries desperately to free herself from her untimely entombment.
Jonathan Mack as the Physician and Nick Shelton as the Servant round out the singing cast, with Mack – since he’s the personification of health? – having the strongest voice (not to slight Shelton, who impresses us yet again). On the other hand, where an anemic-sounding voice is more in keeping with his role, MacPherson is not expected to sing like one of Wagner’s Norse gods, and the same can be said for Gregory, whose role calls for an exhausted traveler who soon regrets having made the long trip.
The supernumeraries (non-singing, onstage extras) move the props or change the scenery, the set essentially being four columnar archways to suggest long passages and vault-like chambers. Presumably costume designer Jacqueline Saint Anne (love that name!) chose to give the extras a Goth-like appearance, a sort of Ramones-meet-Wednesday-Addams flair as a play on “gothic,” but it seems more campy than complementary. Better, perhaps, to have dressed them formally, and uniformly, with masks to hide their faces.
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” although running under 90 minutes with no intermission, is a slight work that certainly tries to be atmospheric and moody. Strong, dramatic side-lighting is imperative, of course, and any sort of warm glow is verboten. And while Andreas Mitisek conducts the chamber orchestra as well as ever, the music – recognizably Glass, without a doubt – seems parsimoniously distributed and never evokes the hypnotic grandeur of his best compositions.
In an attempt, perhaps, to substitute edgy for horrific, director Ken Cazan has opted to portray Roderick Usher as a repressed homosexual, and one can say he does a Freudian headlock on the poor man – and on William, too, for that matter (being that it takes two to tango, as it were). Cazon may be on to something, who knows, but it’s also possible he’s failed to decipher or decode the context of the times in which the tale was penned, when men passionately embraced or walked arm in arm to converse. To suggest gay undercurrents seems unnecessarily provocative on this occasion, as if Cazan felt that the opera needed a bit of prodding to make it more interesting. That said, LBO’s mantra may well be “expect the unexpected,” in which case who are we to complain when they supply the goods?
This is one of those operas that you’d like to root for, and it really does seem like a promising venture, but I’m afraid there’s just not enough here to make it worthwhile.
The Fall of the House of Usher is being performed on Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Warner Grand Theater, 478 W. Sixth St., San Pedro. Tickets, $29 to $160. Call (562) 432-5934 or go to longbeachopera.org.