San Francisco Opera ends the year with a double-bill of hour-long works based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Fall of the House of Usher: Gordon Getty's Usher House and a reconstruction of Claude Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher, which the French composer left unfinished.
Poe's hoary Gothic tale tells the story of a tortured brother and sister who cohabit inside a creepy castle. It involves scenes of hypochondria, catalepsy, implied incest, and a grizzly live burial. The dramatic plot might seem perfect for operatic treatment. But San Francisco Opera sadly squanders the opportunity owing to the dry music and a dull staging. When the most interesting things about a performance are the curtain call and the onstage rain, you know you're in trouble.
Director David Pountney's staging of Getty's Usher House looks reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Kitsch rules. It all begins with video images of a raven atop a castle. On opening night, the clichéd melodrama of the image provoked laughter from the audience. And the production continues in this spirit, cycling predictably through images of windswept trees, the sound of horses' hooves and frequent cuts back to the raven. Despite all this visual and sonic activity, the staging feels strangely static. This impression is compounded by the fact that the performers mostly stand still while singing.
Getty's music is sparse, creepy and chromatic. The texture is also generally thin, only involving at most two musical lines at a time. Getty mainly constructs his opera out of dialogue between the characters. There are very few real melodies in all this back and forth.
"Where Is My Lady?" is the one bona fide aria of Getty's work. Sung by tenor Jason Bridges in this production, this ballad about the beauty and grace of Madeline Usher, one of the two siblings at the heart of Poe's story, is sweet, and Bridges makes the most of it. Oddly, Getty chooses not to include a setting of the one song that's included in Poe's original story -- "The Haunted Palace" -- which Roderick Usher, Madeline's brother, sings accompanied by his own guitar playing.