Thursday, January 31, 2013

Concert Review: LBO's Fall of the House of Usher

photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Philip Glass' music of the last 30 years is a quagmire. Though the influence of his aesthetic on contemporary music is undeniable, his staggeringly prolific output is "uneven" (as eloquently put by Kyle Gann). If you have heard his solo piano music, string quartets, and/or any one of his 22 operas and chamber operas after Akhnaten, then you will not be surprised by anything you'll hear in his musical interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. That predictability, which has the potential to sound formulaic, is used to mesmerizing effect by director Ken Cazan in Long Beach Opera's West Coast premiere of Glass' 1988 chamber opera.

Cazan is in no way subtle in accentuating the homosexual tension present in Arthur Yorinks' libretto. From the moment that William (the anonymous narrator of Poe's story) dashes off to prepare for his trip to visit the hypochondriac Roderick Usher, the deep melodrama of Glass' music is laid out for camp deconstruction. This is the Poe of Vincent Price, minus the Les Baxter soundtrack (did Baxter ever write an opera, BTW?). As with Price, the laser-pointed seriousness of the performers is what gives the piece its ability to sustain this particular brand of darkness for 90 minutes. Through the resonant filter of this bold interpretation, the stock minor key affects of Philip Glass take on a fascinating new form - one of a knowing wink that is much easier to admire than that of composer-as-businessman.  This is not to diminish the staunch sincerity of the performance, however. To the contrary, such a complex contextual display presents the audience with a deeper emotional content that is surprisingly difficult to compartmentalize.

photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Cazan's design team deserves extra applause for bringing such a production to life. Alan E. Muraoka's modular walls and doorways rolled across the stage, always seeming on the verge of collision. The rarity of parallel surfaces and the stark grey panels occasionally reminded me of Disney Hall. Lighting designer David Jacques' work brough Olafur Eliasson's light installations to mind, while providing a symbiotic cohesiveness to Muraoka's sets that one could attribute to a long history of collaboration. Jacqueline Saint Anne's costumes contrasted the minimalist-inspired design, adding a human element that mirrored Glass' treatment of the voice.

Under artistic director Andreas Mitisek's baton, the instrumental ensemble did a fantastic job arpeggiating their way through the piece, creating a solid bed for the singers to lay in. And lay they did. Soprano Suzan Hanson did a fantastic job reprising her role as the vocalise-prone Madeline, while baritone Lee Gregory and tenor Ryan MacPherson solidly expressed their dramatic exchanges. Their actions were tacitly facilitated by an eight person crew of mohawked Rufio's that guided Muraoka's sets on their wild rides back and forth across the stage.
photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

When I first read Poe's original story as a teenager, the potential homoerotic undercurrent of the story had never even occurred to me. Then again, I had written off the tale as less viscerally sinister than his other writings, like The Casque of Amontillado or The Masque of the Red Death. The details of this LBO production bring a whole new weirdness to the story, which I otherwise would have missed, and I always appreciate a little weirdness.

No comments: