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Review: The Fall of the House of Usher, Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome

Norman Stinchcombe reviews The Fall of the House of Usher by the Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome

The Fall of the House of Usher, Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome
***

The most impressive part of this double bill of operas inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic short story is their look. David Haneke’s brilliantly imaginative use of video projection on moveable panels, using location footage of Penrhyn Castle, makes the house itself the central character.

Its appearance changes when interacting with those it enfolds and its watery destruction is spectacular. In Debussy’s unfinished La Chute de la maison Usher, heard in a completion by Robert Orledge, pillars move in oppressively on Roderick Usher until he is trapped between them like a
neurasthenic Samson and his sister Madeline returns from her premature burial as a looming larger-than-life projected spectre.

In American composer Gordon Getty’s Usher House portraits come alive, recalling the characters’ memories, like movie flashbacks, or exteriorizing their inner states.

If only the music were as imaginative. Getty gives us every trademark sound from the Universal and Hammer movie handbook – tremolando strings, percussion glissandi and hammered sforzando chords.

The WNO orchestra, under Lawrence Foster, give it everything. Getty’s setting consists entirely of sung speech except when Poe (ardent tenor Jason Bridges) recalls his romantic feelings for Madeline Usher, and we get a hint of a Bernstein-like aria. Debussy’s Roderick is a tortured
fin-de-siècle romantic – Robert Hayward is impressive in his long monologue – but musically this is no Pelleas.

Getty’s Roderick (the enjoyably hammy Benjamin Bevan) is part buffoon part fruitcake. Anna Gorbachyova as Madeline has little to do but the part is expressively danced by Joanna Jeffries in Getty’s version.

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