Edgar Allan Poe: Getty and Debussy at Welsh National Opera

Edgar Allan Poe: Getty and Debussy at Welsh National Opera

 

Usher House

Music and text by Gordon Getty
Cast: Jason Bridges / Benjamin Bevan / Kevin Short / Anna Gorbachyova / Joanna Jeffries

La chute de la maison Usher

Music by Claude Debussy
Text by Claude Debussy after Edgar Allan Poe
Reconstruction and orchestration by Robert Orledge
Cast: Anna Gorbachyova / Mark Le Brocq / William Dazeley / Robert Hayward

Director: David Pountney
Video Projection Designer: David Haneke
Conductor: Lawrence Foster

The Fall of the House of Usher -  Robert Hayward (Roderick Usher) & Anna Gorbachyova (Lady Madeline photo: Stephen Cummiskey
The Fall of the House of Usher –
Robert Hayward (Roderick Usher)
& Anna Gorbachyova (Lady Madeline
photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ was published in 1839. Poe was just twenty years old and yet, a mere decade later, his short life wrung by tragedy and strife, he would die in circumstances arguably as mysterious as any to be found within the gothic horror or detective thriller genres he did so much to create. In his native United States, lurid tales of depravity and alcoholism, madness and suicide coloured his posthumous reputation, propelled by a campaign of spite by Rufus Wilmot Griswold; a literary rival who claimed to be Poe’s executor but who spent many years attempting to destroy his hard-won name.

Even today, it is Poe himself who remains as much associated with all things macabre and darkly twisted as are his brilliant short fiction and poetry. Poe’s vivid, febrile stories have, of course, not only inspired generations of writers and artists, but spawned a vast catalogue of homages and adaptations on paper, stage and, latterly, on screen; in 1998, Don G. Smith counted eighty-eight feature films alone based on Poe’s work across thirteen countries, spanning early expressionist cinema to Hammer horror and beyond. (1) That number has surely increased in the new millennium, with a fresh and apparently insatiable public desire for vampires, ghouls and zombies.

Pop culture aside, it is in France that Poe’s undoubted literary stature has been most appreciated historically. Baudelaire takes much of the credit for this, as his translations of Poe seized the Symbolist imagination of authors from the Belgian writer Maeterlinck to the French poets Verlaine and Mellarmé. So it is hardly surprising that Debussy – whose first opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) adapted the highly suggestive Maeterlinck play of the same name – should have looked to Poe in his search for further libretti. As early as 1903, Debussy started composing an opera on another Poe story, the blackly comic ‘The Devil in the Belfry’. For a while, he considered teaming ‘The Devil’ with ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ in a double-bill of one-act operas, before abandoning the comedy in 1912. Debussy was becoming increasingly obsessed with ‘Usher’s’ tale of monstrous familial doom. However, despite working on La chute de la maison Usher from around 1908, that opera too lay incomplete upon his premature death in 1918, as a man drained, ill and weighed down by history. In Robert Orledge’s words, Debussy had grown too close to the main character Roderick Usher, ‘whose mental breakdown Poe had identified with the crumbling House itself.’

In Poe’s story, and in both operas which formed Welsh National Opera’s own one-act double-bill this season, the House of Usher is at once a malevolent physical entity and a cursed ancestral lineage. How far Gordon Getty might relate to either phenomenon can only be guessed, but WNO have the House of Getty, as it were, to thank for the funding which made this production possible – and indeed, their entire five-year project of British Firsts, of which it was a part. Offering the world stage premiére of Getty’s Usher House in return (it is surely disingenuous to suggest the reasons were entirely artistic) seems to me a small price to pay, however thin the composer-philanthropist’s own material.

As it was, director David Pountney did a frankly extraordinary job of presenting the operas back to back without the Getty coming off too much the worse by comparison to the Debussy – that is, theatrically speaking at least. Indeed, Pountney, together with an excellent production team, strong casts and Lawrence Foster’s committed WNO Orchestra, created an evening of chilling and compelling drama. Utilising twin, related stagings, Poe’s tale was told from two different angles, bringing Robert Orledge’s entirely creditable completion of the Debussy to Britain for the first time since its premiére at Bregenz in 2006.

In keeping with the traditions of Poe on film, the basis for Pountney’s success was his cinematic vision, ironically making the most of the very thing for which Debussy and now Getty have stood accused with their respective Usher scores; namely, producing music more suited to film than to opera. According to Carolyn Abbate (who has herself produced a working completion of the Frenchman’s score), ‘what Debussy managed to write is exhausted and silly, for while what he provides is not directly onomatopoeic, the music has the gestural redundancy reminiscent of bad film music.’ (2)

To my mind, the notion that music for film should by definition be of less intrinsic value than that for opera is spurious. (3) But in any case, Pountney managed to transcend any such issues in either score by choosing to create atmosphere rather than action; moving away from conventional narrative opera to re-frame both Getty’s and Debussy’s musical gestures to mesmerising effect. Thus the House itself was restored to its function as the central ‘character’ in Poe’s story, with wonderful gliding sets comprising large-scale images of Penrhyn Castle by video projection designer David Haneke (designer Niki Turner). In the Getty, the references included Hammer Technicolor and Harry Potter, but invested with real emotional power. Here we were sucked into baleful ancestral halls to be leered at by living portraits en route to utter destruction, only to be crushed anew in the Debussy by stark black and white stone and shadow, as the very walls grew ever larger and more coldly threatening before ultimate collapse. The literal, sheeting rain at the end of each opera spoke eloquently of sorrow and loss.

The Fall of the House of Usher Benjamin Bevan (Roderick), Joanna Jeffries (Lady Madeline), Jason Bridges (Poe) Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
The Fall of the House of Usher
Benjamin Bevan (Roderick),
Joanna Jeffries (Lady Madeline),
Jason Bridges (Poe)
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Since Debussy failed to complete his opera, some have questioned whether Poe’s ‘Usher’ is actually suitable as a basis for a libretto; after all, the final implosion of the house and the swallowing of its unfortunate inhabitants might be startlingly dramatic but, otherwise, there is little actual plot. However, as Pountney amply demonstrated on a direct, visual level, there is much to ‘see’ in the heightened supernatural tension and psycho-emotional nuance with which Poe’s writing is loaded. It is the inner drama and structural symbolism which matter. And this is where Debussy’s / Orledge’s setting of the text wins clearly over Getty’s adaptation, which latter opts for a pedestrian and unvaried 19th century narrative treatment with, it must be said, scant literary or musical imagination. For not only does Debussy heighten Poe’s already claustrophobic and menacing atmosphere with sparse but tautly impressionist music, but his characters and their relationships are similarly fraught with erotic and other anxieties.

In the Debussy, many of Poe’s mysteries are left tantalisingly hanging: What exactly is Roderick Usher suffering from? Are he and his co-afflicted twin sister Madeline lovers? What is the significance of Roderick’s burying her alive – so familiar a trope in Poe’s oeuvre, together with that of twins. And why does Debussy alter this in his piece to have the sinister figure of Le Médecin commit the evil deed instead? What is the role of fate in the piece, and of the narrator who arrives from outside to witness the destruction of a family amid the ‘weeping stones’ of their House, isolated within a blasted landscape? By comparison, Getty’s wordy adaptation, lifted immeasurably by this production and the sheer musicianship of the singers and orchestra, seems not just mundane but wilfully naive in its refusal to plumb any kind of psychological depth.

Further points are raised when one considers Poe’s ‘total’ theory of the short story, of which ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is an outstanding example. In Poe’s view, the brevity of the form allows the writer to unify all elements of the work, including close details of technique and style, towards a single effect; the aim being to transform mere narrative into a perfectly integrated work of art. This idea has more than a hint of – dare I suggest – Gesamtkunstwerk. In any case, viewed through this lens, Getty’s score falls painfully short of the writer’s innovative vision, with hammy pastiche (complete with Addams Family harpsichord at one point) and cardboard characterisation. Having Poe himself appear as narrator hardly adds to the subtlety. But Debussy’s score (and Orledge does an excellent job of realising this) at least attempts, for example, to rise to Poe’s challenge of the senses, as the composer utilises his trademark lush and colouristic harmonic palette to suggest the neurasthenia which torments Roderick Usher – and which Debussy himself spoke of suffering as, unbeknownst to him at first, his rectal cancer gradually took hold.

Unsurprisingly, Debussy’s vocal style is more nuanced than Getty’s unrelenting declamation. The Frenchman too is wordy in his way, utilising the kind of constant parlando reliant upon the rhythms of French speech rather than outright ‘song’ which some have criticised in Pelleas – but which, again, lends itself beautifully to the building of atmosphere and tension within Debussy’s overtly sensuous sound world. Casting the three male roles as baritones brings further intrigue to his Usher score, with the suggestion that all three characters could be aspects of the same person.

In both operas, the casts were immensely capable and well-matched. Kevin Short and Mark Le Brocq made twisted medics in the Getty and Debussy respectively, whilst Jason Bridges (Poe) and Benjamin Bevan (Usher) grappled heroically with sheer wordage in the former. William Dazeley was – forgive me – appropriately dazed as Usher’s L’ami in the Debussy, whilst the vocal highlight came in that opera courtesy of Robert Hayward, who made a superbly moving Usher; the only character to express substantive vocal and emotional release. If only either composer had allowed us to hear more of Anna Gorbachyova’s twice-enticing Madeline – but at least Pountney gave her character a more extended stage presence by means of dance (the alternately cataleptic and frenzied Joanna Jeffries).

Despite the shortcomings of the Getty and the challenges of the Debussy, this twin production was a great success overall. Indeed, Pountney’s staging was all the more impressive given the essential lack of mystery in the former’s material, and the problems caused by Debussy’s self-identification with, and failure to complete, the latter. It is to Pountney’s credit that he entirely avoided the potential pitfall of making Poe’s terrifying phantasms too concrete and too present, but kept the audience hovering in a subtle netherworld of dream / nightmare. Getty and Orledge should have been thrilled by the results on more than one level, for surely Welsh National Opera have given both operas as committed and convincing a performance as either are likely to receive anywhere.

 

 

1 – The Poe Cinema, Jefferson: McFarland, 1998.
2 – In Search of Opera, Princeton University Press, 2001.
3 – Come to that, I don’t believe film music is necessarily less worthy than concert music either. See Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes from 1964, with music by Toru Takemitsu for a start, and then there is Béla Tarr’s frequent musical collaborator Mihály Vig… but the list is endless. Staying with La chute de la maison Usher, watch out in the autumn for Charlie Barber’s forthcoming tour of Jean Epstein’s classic silent film with his own music performed live.


 original illustration by Dean Lewis