Director: David Pountney
Usher House Music &Text: Gordon Getty
La Chute de la Maison Usher Music &Text: Claude Debussy
Reviewer: Lauren Anders
It isn’t often that a company can create a tension so high that the audience is sat on the edges of their seats before the curtain has even gone up, but this is exactly the reaction that Welsh National Opera achieved with this double bill. Director David Pountney’s decision to black out the auditorium and deliver a few haunting notes from the orchestra fills the auditorium with a poignant sense of dread and ensures that everybody knows that something out of the ordinary is about to happen on stage.
In the first act, Usher House by Gordon Getty, the story follows the mentally ill Roderick Usher (Benjamin Bevan), the last in his line living a secluded life in a macabre mansion that appears to have a mind of it’s own. Roderick’s only solace in life is his twin sister Madeline who’s slowly dying of an undiagnosed disease and is being cared for by Doctor Primus (Kevin Short) who the audience cannot help but feel unsettled by.
Most of the act is sung by Roderick (Bevan) and his friend Poe (Jason Bridges). The two voices blend together sweetly throughout the modern score and both deliver strong performances, although visually they could do more on the stage.
We see Roderick’s mind begin to deteriorate as he feels his sister’s illness forcing her to slip away from him and his friend trying to comfort him. Roderick slips further away as the orchestra provide a more manic composition for him.
Getty’s music perfectly complements the desperation of Poe as he tries to calm his friend; the audience feel the intensity and importance of this scene right from the stomach as they see Dr Primus and the friend try to keep the death of Madeline from Roderick in a bid to stop him from going mad. As the tension builds, the music, strong vocal performance and body language from Bevan ensure the catharsis at the end.
The second part of the double bill is the classic piece by Debussy and features a different cast singing in French.
Debussy’s piece is far more passionate and proud and sees a different take on the relationship between the Usher siblings, who perhaps in this piece love one another…too much. This is identified in the lyrics when Usher sings of his sister’s “tempting lips” and in the body language of Madeline (Anna Gorbachyova) who pulls Roderick’s hand in between her bosom and down her stomach before quickly moving it away from her.
Usher (Robert Hayward) and the friend, L’Ami (William Dazely), are able to create a stronger rapport in this piece. L’Ami’s attempts to protect Usher are more desperate, which is all down to the fabulous score that helps the actors to be more theatrical and watchable than Getty’s interpretation.
The set in both pieces is incredibly modern; David Haneke has designed the set using projections of the highest quality. Not only do these projections help to flawlessly move the pieces from scene to scene, but they also demonstrate that the house has a mind of it’s own. The downside of the projections is that they restrict the staging of the pieces, the actors at times can be less interesting to watch than perhaps if they had a set that they were able to move on.
In summary, the Welsh National Opera have done an amazing job of delivering two different takes of one story, especially as short as Fall Of The House Of Usher. All of the actors in both pieces deliver note perfect performances, but those in Debussy’s piece have tone to be more theatrical and watchable than those in the Getty piece. Having the same director and production team really shows the diversity of the Welsh National Opera.
Runs until Sunday 15th June 2014