Claude Debussy’s fragmentary “La Chute de la Maison Usher”, completed by British Debussy scholar Robert Orledge, is the second half of a double bill of operas based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”. (My comments on the opening opera of the double bill opening opera may be found at Review: Getty’s Ghostly “Usher House” – San Francisco Opera, December 13, 2015.)
Brian Mulligan’s Roderick Usher
As Debussy’s Roderick, New York baritone Brian Mulligan is the lead character in Debussy’s markedly different approach to Poe’s work. Mastering the challenging chromaticism in Roderick’s vocal line in French, Mulligan’s appearance in “Maison Chute” was, in itself, a tour de force.
[Below: Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher in Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The deranged Roderick has been driven mad by Usher house. Debussy’s orchestration intensifies Mulligan’s effective portrait of insanity.
The fact that Mulligan had just finished singing Getty’s Roderick a half hour earlier made the performance even more extraordinary.
Edward Nelson’s L’Ami
California baritone Edward Nelson, a first-year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, appears as the friend, Roderick’s L’Ami, who has received the disquieting letter that has caused him to visit the House of Usher.
Nelson sang impressively and was convincing as a character with a significant role in the story’s exposition.
[Below: L’Ami (Edward Nelson, left) learns from Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan, right) about the terror that has gripped him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]
Having appeared this Fall in important comprimario roles in the French, Italian and German opera repertories, I have little doubt that Nelson will be assuming larger roles, both at the San Francisco Opera and in other major opera companies.
Jacqueline Piccolino’s Lady Madeline
Although Illinois soprano Jacqueline Piccolino sings in both operas, she appears onstage only in “Maison Usher”, although her appearance looms large as a result of David Haneke’s video projections.
[Below: Jacqueline Piccolino as the Lady Madeline; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Piccolino, a fine artist who is a Second Year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, handled the high tessitura of both roles with distinction.
Joel Sorensen’s Le Médecin
Ohio tenor Joel Sorensen is one of the most gifted character tenors currently performing. Sorensen provided yet another arresting characterization, that of Lady Madeline’s physician, pursuing a mysterious agenda beyond attending the Lady Madeline’s ailments.
[Below: Joel Sorensen as Le Médecin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
California audiences are familiar with Sorensen’s many assignments at the San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles Operas [e.g., his Doctor Caius in A Lovable “Falstaff”: Roberto Frontali Brilliant in Lee Blakeley’s Enchanting New Production – Los Angeles Opera, November 9, 2013.]
Notes on the Production
Immersed in the symbolism that attracted 19th and 20th century French artistic circles, and particularly Debussy, to Poe’s writings, “Maison Usher” has some similarities both in subject and sound with Debussy’s operatic masterpiece “Pelleas et Melisande”.
Debussy’s fascination with occult themes is evident in this unfinished work with which he wrestled over two decades. Orledge’s scholarly completion of the work has a seamliness and theatrical viability that has rescued Debussy’s elusive work for 21st century audiences.
[Below: Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan, left) expresses his terror to Le Médecin (Joel Sorensen, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Central to the production by English director David Pountney and English production designer Niki Turner are the projections of Austrian videographer David Haneke.
In “Maison Usher”, the house itself has a leading role, literally the opera’s title character. The walls vibrate. The house’s stonework changes in size and shape. At opera’s end all parts of the house disintegrate in a massive explosion.
[Below: a concluding scene of Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Thoughts on Pairing the Getty and Debussy “Usher” operas
Two short operas have been paired, first by the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff and now in San Francisco, that are based on the same short story and are conceived in imaginative productions by the same production team. One cannot imagine not performing them together as a double bill, at least early in the performance histories of these two productions.
Once one has seen the double bill, it is possible to imagine them as separately teamed with other short works. The treatments of Poe’s story are quite different and each opera has its own merit.
[Below: Lady Madeline (Jacqueline Piccolini) survives briefly in Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher”, before all are consumed in the destruction of Usher House; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
(American composer Philip Glass has also written his own Usher House opera, and I suppose it is possible to imagine a triple bill of Debussy, Getty and Glass, but I doubt that such a triple bill need ever be mounted.)
An unexpected excursion by the San Francisco Opera into adventurous repertory, the double bill confirmed that high quality video projections as were evident in both works will be of ever increasing importance in opera performance, and will enhance the theatrical experience at such iconic venues as the War Memorial Opera House.