The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Philip Glass

Opera based on Poe ghost story. Gothic fiction about hyperesthetic whose dead sister reappears.
New College Chapel, Wed January 30th - Fri February 1st 2008

January 31, 2008
January is an intense, discomforting month. It’s dark, moody and melancholy. For that reason, a gothic opera pledging to explore the themes of illness, death and incest seemed the perfect opportunity to savour every last moment of my winter discontent.

The Fall of the House of Usher is told from the perspective of William, a friend visiting the central character Ruskin Usher, a man suffering from extreme hypersensitivity to light, sounds, smells and tastes. I am told in the programme that I cannot rely on William to be presenting the truth. It’s interesting that this is stated at all; what art can be relied on to tell the truth? Nonetheless, as the story unfolds the audience is taken through the passion, frustration and fear felt by each character as they appear to experience unusual and discomforting events.

I’m not overly familiar with Philip Glass’s music; my only other experience was when last October I saw Glass’s adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s poetry collection ‘Book of Longing’. I certainly found the music interesting but it didn’t stir up any emotions and I felt quite detached - more of an observer than a listener. It was interesting therefore to be placed right in the middle of a severe narrative; up close to the artists and in a set as foreboding as New College Chapel in the dense January night.

The three vocalists had fine voices that suitably conveyed the intensity of their characters’ feelings. Robyn Allegra Parton, who played Madeleine Usher, managed to fuse the ghoulish with the beautiful; her voice lifted the music out of its often murky depths, though not into a more cheerful realm - instead she allowed a supernatural atmosphere to build up and linger.

The audience seemed to comprise serious music aficionados, and during the interval I heard abundant praise for the technical accomplishments of both the vocalists and musicians. It’s been many years since I took my grade 8 piano exam and I’ve never enjoyed the mathematical approach to music appreciation; I want the music to speak to me, I want to get lost in it. Philip Glass evidently writes music that inspires and impresses, but it doesn’t affect me.

The New Chamber Opera’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a forceful production. There are infinite layers of despair, discontent and disbelief to wallow in; a real chance to indulge in someone else’s nightmare. Philip Glass fans will be bowled over; I was impressed but not inspired.
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