Creepily Effective–Glass’ Fall of the House of Usher

Review by: Robert Levine

usher

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This tight, creepy opera from 1987 is marvelously economical and enormously effective. Scored only for string quintet, three winds, (a very effective and unexpected) horn, percussion, synthesizer, and guitar (when called for by Poe), Glass’ signature repetitiveness is entirely appropriate. There’s madness afoot–more-so as the opera continues–and the curlicues from the flute become more quirky and the textures chillier.

At first, there’s an almost innocent mundaneness to the chug-chuggery as we’re being introduced. William is puzzled by Roderick’s desperate, morbid invitation–they were not so close as children; but after Roderick opens up (“An illness has come over me/Certain sounds scream at me/The light of a single candle/burns my eyes”) and Madeline’s voice is heard, wordlessly, the accompaniment becomes oppressively gloomy and ominous. Sickly, in fact, by Act 2, and as Roderick seems to perk up in his “encounters” with the ghostly Madeline, William weakens. A bass drum stands in for a hallucinated banging at the door and adds to the nerve-wracking atmosphere that never lets up until it simply dies away.

Like the Edgar Allan Poe story, it is a puzzle. Is the House somehow guilty and demonic? Is incest, murder, and paranormal activity present or are the characters hallucinating? How close were Roderick and William as children and where does Madeline come into this troika?

The cast, unknown to me, from a live performance at Wolf Trap in 2017, is totally engaged and couldn’t be better. All sing Arthur Yorinks’ tidy libretto in impeccable English. Tenor Jonas Hacker as Roderick sounds properly mad even as he attempts to sound relaxed. He viciously accuses his house physician (Nicholas Nestorak) of murdering Madeline. Baritone Ben Edquist as William is sympathetic and eventually quite loony. Madison Leonard is the wordless, haunted Madeline, quite eerie.

Joseph Li leads the singers and the Inscape Chamber Orchestra seamlessly through the work’s 80-plus minutes; it seems inevitable and otherworldy, which I suspect was Glass’ intent. Please get over the fact that whoever is in charge misspells Poe’s middle name wherever it appears, and enjoy this remarkable little opera.



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Recording Details:

  • Jonas Hacker, Nicholas Nestorak (tenor); Ben Edquist (baritone); Madison Leonard (soprano); Matthew Fleisher (bass)
  • Wolf Trap Opera Artists, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Li


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