Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Usher House, Getty and La Chute du maison Usher, Debussy and Robert Orledge

Welsh National Opera , Wales Millennium Centre , June 16, 2014
Usher House, Getty and La Chute du maison Usher, Debussy and Robert Orledge by  Welsh National Opera David Pountney’s appointment was intended to usher in a new artistic era for WNO but this season has been a wave of production horrors and a critical hammering. This latest deathly double bill won’t swing the pendulum back in the company’s favour, particularly as not even what rose from the pit could breathe life into this bloodless offering.

Pountney’s recorded message about opera houses needing money was the perfect introduction to the first of the two takes on The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous American Gothic novel; Usher House, by the mega rich Gordon Getty, who has donated to WNO. Enough said.

It is just about an hour long and a few minutes are quite pleasant. The story of the brother and sister, the last of a long line of family oddities, has Poe parachuted in as a visitor to save them – or is there more sinister work afoot? Benjamin Bevan acts his socks off as a childlike, obsessed and tormented Roderick Usher, menaced by the mysterious Doctor Primus sung by Kevin Short. Jason Bridges sings and acts Eddie Poe with elegance but there is not a lot he can do with the plodding plot and over wordy libretto.

The gloom lifts after the interval with Robert Orledge’s reconstruction and orchestration of the fragments of Debussy’s work, La Chute du maison Usher. Conducted by Lawrence Foster, the music flows effectively and effortlessly, capturing the colour and atmosphere of Debussy’s finest equally dark, Pelléas et Mélisande.

As Roderick, Robert Hayward is marvellous. His long monologue is the dark heart of the work and gripping. The odd doctor is this time sung by Mark Le Brocq and Usher's friend is William Dazeley but there is little there for them or Anna Gorbachyova as Madeline to sink their teeth into.

Pountney's staging of both works does raise the spirits, with David Haneke video projections onto screens. In the Getty work it resembled an estate agent’s online tour of a house (here Penrhyn Castle) with ghostly images projected on to its walls and paintings coming to life. A look round the Victorian, rather ugly, pile was as interesting as anything we heard although some of the ghost footage veered on the silly. In the Debussy it is far more effective zooming in on the stones of the outside of the building as they crumble with age and with blood red creepers spreading across the walls, emphasising Poe’s obvious metaphor.

This is the perfect reminder of the danger of building on swampy ground or landfill sites with dangerous gases that can go to the head – whatever the financial inducements.

To use a football world cup cliché, this was a game of two halves. The final score: USA 0, France 1. What is questionable is how the USA qualified in the first place. But this is one sponsorship deal that doesn’t require a FIFA investigation

Reviewed by: Miker Smith

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