Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: Getty’s Ghostly “Usher House” – San Francisco Opera, December 13, 2015

December 14th, 2015

The San Francisco Opera presented the American premiere of Gordon Getty’s “Usher House” as the first offering of a double bill of operas based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher”.

Brian Mulligan’s Roderick Usher

Baritone Brian Mulligan was cast as the reclusive Roderick Usher, the last living male of the ancient family of Usher.

[Below: Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher in Getty’s “Usher House”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Mulligan presented a vivid portrait of the crazed Roderick, enlisting his lyric baritone for Getty’s conceptualization of the character as more manic than mad.

Mulligan proved comfortable with the long declamatory passages that Getty wrote for this American opera inspired by Poe’s iconic American horror story. His performance made a strong case for the viability of Getty’s opera.

It is a tribute to Mulligan’s talent (and endurance) that his performance was followed a half hour later by the complex Debussy opera on the same theme.

San Francisco Opera’s fall season has been a extraordinary one for Mulligan. In past San Francisco seasons, his sweet-voiced baritone has been enlisted for such lyric roles as Valentin in Gounod’s “Faust”, Sharpless in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Albert in Massenet’s “Werther”.

His vocal virtuosity and dramatic abilities had been evident when he assayed the role of Richard Nixon [see 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012.]

However, this season he has explored characters who, at the very least, are suffering severe mental distress for events that have befallen the families they love [See Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015 and Review: Soprano Nadine Sierra’s, Director Michael Cavanagh’s Vivid “Lucia di Lammermoor” – San Francisco Opera, October 8, 2015.] (Enrico is also a lyric baritone role, but Cavanagh’s blood-drenched production of “Lucia” highlighted the madness in the Ravenswood household.)

Mulligan has spoken of his affinity for contemporary opera in English. In mid-2016, beyond this American premiere of “Usher House”, he is scheduled for the Jack Torrance role in world premiere of “The Shining” at Minnesota Opera and a major revival of Jonathan Ward’s “The Crucible” at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Jason Bridges’ Edgar Allan Poe

In an impressive San Francisco Opera debut, Pennsylvania tenor Jason Bridges sang the role of Edgar Allan Poe. Getty has set to music long passages that follow what Poe’s Narrator communicates on the written page. What Bridges sings so beautifully and clearly can always be understood.

[Below: Jason Bridges as Edgar Allan Poe in Getty’s “Usher House”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Much of Bridges’ career has been spent in Europe (he was trained in the Atelier Lyrique young artist’s program of the Opéra National de Paris) , and he is a member of soloist ensemble at the Vienna State Opera. His San Francisco debut suggests that additional invitations from American opera houses are warranted.

Anthony Reed’s Doctor Primus

Although Minnesota bass-baritone Anthony Reed had appeared in two important roles in the previous month’s performances of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, Doctor Primus proved the breakout role for the first year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow.

[Below: Anthony Reed as Doctor Primus in Getty’s “Usher House”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In one of the San Francisco Opera season’s most unforgettable character roles, Reed exuded a studied creepiness, with a deep and secure bass voice that augurs that a long career playing operatic villains awaits him.

It was a physically challenging role as well, with Reed having to sing while crossing the stage with a dancer draped on his back.

Notes on the Production

David Pountney’s association with operas based on the “Fall of the House of Usher” dates back to 2007, when the Bregenz, Austria Festival presented the Debussy-Orledge “Maison Usher” version of the classical story.

Collaborating with Austrian Video Production Designer (videographer) David Haneke, what ensued was the most effective use of video projections yet by the San Francisco Opera, the company I have praised for its brilliant use of projections in operas by such contemporary composers as Adams and Floyd.

[Below: various ghosts join Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan, standing, center left), the Lady Madeline (dancer Jamielyn Duggan, center, on floor) and Edgar Allan Poe (Jason Bridges, standing, center right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The audience joined author/”narrator” Poe on a tour of several impressive rooms in the Usher mansion. The audience was able to appreciate the participation of spirits from previous generations in present day Usher House festivities.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Maestro Lawrence Foster, performed with distinction.

Thoughts about the Opera

I found both Getty’s libretto and music to be effective in presenting an augmented version of Poe’s tale. It worked well that the character of Madeline Usher, Roderick’s sister who was entombed a few days too early, was assigned to a dancer (Jamielyn Duggan), with Madeline’s voice sung by Illinois soprano Jacqueline Piccolino.

[Below: the Lady Madeline (Jamielyn Duggan, front, left in white) collapses in the arms of Edgar Allan Poe (Jason Bridges, front, right) as ghosts ignore them; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.


Getty, though now in his early 80s, has spoken about composing another opera (he mentions the subject of Oscar Wilde’s “Canterville Ghost”) as a companion piece. One could imagine such a double bill being staged by opera companies (especially with ghostly appearances such as in Haneke’s projections) in the weeks of late October.

[For my comments on the second opera, a completion by Robert Orledge of Debussy’s fragmentary treatment of Poe’s story, see: Review: Brian Mulligan’s Bravura Performance in Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher” – San Francisco Opera, December 13, 2015.]


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