The Fall of the House of Usher, SF Opera

In this double-bill of one-acts, Getty's take on Poe's gothic tale is more muddled than macabre, and an unfinished Debussy work gets a tortured reconstruction.

Double bill of one-act operas: “Usher House” by Gordon Getty and “La chute de la maison Usher” by Claude Debussy

Conducted by Lawrence Foster

Directed by David Pountney

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House

Dec. 8-13, 2015

An opera based on a Poe short story had its American premiere at the War Memorial Opera House recently. With great expectations it was born and, four performances later, mercifully it died. Whatever prompted San Francisco Opera to present Gordon Getty’s “Usher House” (on a double bill with Claude Debussy’s “La chute de la maison Usher”), the reasons were insufficient to justify squandering talent and capital on such a meager work. And even though Debussy’s peculiar opus redeemed the production somewhat, the company’s gamble returned only bewildered (if not angry) audiences and a nagging feeling that somehow they had been conned by a general director who was paying off a longtime benefactor.

Although Getty’s one-act riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” had moments of eeriness, the production was more muddled than macabre, with a couple of plot twists thrown in by Getty that complicated the already arcane Poe original (in which a deranged brother obsesses about his sister’s disease to a visiting friend, who deduces that she has been entombed alive, wittingly or un-). Baritone Brian Mulligan made a valiant stab at imbuing the role of Roderick Usher with some morbid and ominous shadings, although Getty’s absurdly unpoetic libretto and amateurish score do not at all enable Mulligan’s efforts. As the narrator (a.k.a. Poe), tenor Jason Bridges struggled to keep the odd melodies (which zigzag between influences, at once Shostakovich and Glass) from turning sour. As Doctor Primus, a “man of science” (and Getty’s attempt to enrich the story with a new character), Anthony Reed overplayed the sinister shadings of his role to the point of satire. (Perhaps he was onto something…). The role of Roderick’s sister, Madeline, was adequately sung (mostly offstage) by Jacqueline Piccolino; the onstage double was danced, effectively enough, by Jamielyn Duggan, although she was subject to Getty’s fervid plot twists and director David Pountney’s inability to restrain himself whenever dramatic emphasis could be exploded into histrionics.

Getty apparently likes to brag about how extraordinary it is that the son of an oil billionaire (his father, J. Paul) could become a composer, neglecting to mention that sons of billionaires can call themselves anything they like. That Getty considers himself a composer completes the delusion; certainly no one would call him anything but a dilettante after witnessing this utterly indulgent exercise.

As for the reconstruction of Debussy’s “La chute de la maison Usher” – a curiosity of interest mainly to students of unfinished works – the production managed to rescue itself from complete embarrassment, although that is damnation through faint praise. Debussy based his libretto more closely on Poe’s original short story, but his score is choppy at best, cobbled into something we are to believe the composer might have had in mind by musicologist Robert Orledge. There are moments of recognizable Debussy lucidity, particularly in the strings, and instances when the singers get their due, reminiscent of the composer’s lovely themes in “Pélleas et Mélisande.” Mulligan again tackled Roderick Usher – the verb is intentional; singing the role is like wrestling a phantom, so incomplete is the score and sketchy its libretto. Piccolino also reprised Madeline, more convincingly so for the fact that she has more time actually on stage. Baritone Edward Nelson essayed the part of the friend who visits at a time of crisis with sincere bravado. Tenor Joel Sorenson, however, added more mincing shtick to the part of le Médecin than Debussy likely had in mind.

Both interpretations of Poe’s story were directed by the aforementioned Pountney, who thankfully tamps down his proclivities toward excess in the Debussy. Both featured the excessive use of video projections by David Haneke, who seems bent on giving the audience a case of seasickness with his relentless slow pans and tracking shots of a gothic mansion somewhere in Great Britain. Lawrence Foster performed the thankless task of conducting these disparate works, an assignment he will probably (and wisely) omit from his résumé.

Note to SF Opera management: Please return a traditional month-by-month calendar of performances and related events to the chaotic redesign of your website. Although it’s easy enough to overlook the preternaturally effervescent twenty-somethings who illustrate many of the pages and the overly cheery look of your production shots, it is a damned inconvenience not to find a standard monthly calendar of what’s going on at both the War Memorial Opera House as well as other venues. Merely listing the dates of various events is not helpful. Those of us who schedule our time based on the Sunday-through-Saturday format of the traditional calendar deserve the simple courtesy of a corresponding device on the Opera’s web pages.

John Sullivan