Tiroler Landestheater 2018 Review: The Fall Of The House of Usher

By Alan Neilson

October saw the opening of Innsbruck’s Haus der Musik, containing two concert halls and a small theater for staged works. Costing €62.7m, it is a splendid modern building, with a large glass front surrounded by dark ceramic paneling. Sitting next to the Landestheater, with its ochre-colored neoclassical façade, dominated by its four Corinthian columns, and opposite to the Hofburg palace, it fits very well indeed, capturing the reflections of the buildings, with the alps rising above, in its glass exterior.

Inside, the spaces are functional, but pleasing on the eye, with ample space for visitors to move easily about. The theatre, situated on its lower level, has a rectangular auditorium with perfect sight lines, with seats for couple of hundred people, and proved to be an excellent venue for the Tiroler Landestheater’s new production of Philip Glass’ chamber opera “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Returning To Poe

Written in 1987/8, to a libretto by Arthur Yorinks, it is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a gothic horror about a mysterious house, surrounded by gnarled trees enveloped in mist, situated next to a tarn, that occasionally turns blood red.

The house itself embodies a malignant force, which haunts the lives of its inhabitants, the Usher family, who have lived in the house for generations. Roderick Usher and his sister, Madeline, are the last of the family line, but both die, succumbing to the house’s malevolent power. At least, this is the surface narrative.

In fact, the work is far from that simple. It is a multi-layered affair shrouded in ambiguity and open to a variety of interpretations. Its finely drawn psychological portrait of Roderick Usher depicts a man suffering from acute anxiety, hypochondria and hyperesthesia, and pre-dates Freud’s pioneering work in the field by over 50 years. It is this aspect of the work, as much as the story itself, which has made it such an interesting and popular story, and one that has attracted the attention of non-musical and musical dramatists, including Debussy.

Glass and Yorinks stayed very closely to the original novel, although the almost invisible role of Usher’s valet has been enlarged, and the unnamed narrator in Poe’s work has been given a name: William. More importantly, however, the ambiguity of the story’s meaning has been expanded, its more dormant themes have been fleshed out; at least they have in this production, directed by Johannes Reitmeier.

Lots of Questions; Few Answers

Many questions are raised, few definitive answers provided. Is the house really a malevolent force, or are we witnessing the events through Roderick’s hypersensitive disposition? Is the house haunted by Madeline? Is she even dead? What was the relationship between Roderick Usher and his sister?

During the night, William is overwhelmed by a terrifying nightmare, his room is invaded by Madeline and Roderick, who copulate on his bed, while he cowers on the floor. But, is it a nightmare? Or is it the house tormenting him? Is it real? Were they, or are they still, involved in an incestuous relationship? In the opening scene Rodrick embraces a small white coffin which may suggest they had a child, and if so, did one or both of them kill it? William discovers a child’s bloody nightclothes, which suggest this might be the case. Of course, the small coffin may hint at the fact that Roderick killed his sister when she was a child, and that it is the grief that is tearing him apart.

Does Madeline kill her brother at the end, or is it the house, or is it just Roderick’s own guilt which eventually kills him? In a way, the actual answers are of little importance, for Reitmeier has succeeded in his task in bringing the work alive, encouraging the audience to think about what they are watching, and maybe even to ask the same questions which eventually force William to flee the house.

Michael D. Zimmermann’s scenography and Markus Braunhofer’s costumes combined to create a truly gothic presentation. All the elements associated with the genre were present, such as the heavy mists, skeletal trees, a large, black, ornate fireplace, high-vaulted windows, candles in abundance and heads of animal trophies hanging on the dark walls. The costumes could have been taken straight from a gothic horror film; Madeline’s white dress in the second half of the performance accentuated her ghostly appearance and acted as a contrast to Roderick and William’s subtle modern-day adaptations of black 19th-century costumes. The overall effect was to create a suitably claustrophobic, gloomy and oppressive atmosphere.

As a means of moving the drama forward, Reitmeier employed a revolving stage, and scenery which dropped quickly from above. Each scene was convincingly presented in itself, but changes were made far too frequently, and acted as a constant break on the emotional engagement for the audience.

As is becoming more and more the norm in productions these days, directors are employing projections on a front curtain or onto the back of the stage, either using simply filmed, photographic or computer-generated images. Sometimes they are very effective, at other times less so. Reitmeier decided to use simple images of the house, its rooms or its surrounding environment, projected onto a front curtain. Again, all worked well in elevating the individual scenes. As William is assailed by his own desperate fears, the projected images distort and start swirling rapidly around, backed by Glass’ repetitive, swelling and increasingly manic music, in what was a powerfully presented scene. However, like the scenes themselves, they were changed too frequently and drew the attention away from the drama itself.

Four Vocal Thespians

There are four singers, all of whom proved themselves to be excellent singing-actors. Dale Albright playing the role of Roderick’s valet gave a powerful performance. Although having only a few lines to sing, he is present onstage for a substantial part of the work. He drifts on and off the set, with apparent authority, but given to him by whom? By Roderick? Or is he serving the house? He was aggressive towards William on his arrival, a threatening curl characterizing his voice.

In the role of Madeline Usher was the soprano, Anna-Maria Kalesidis. She looked every bit the gothic ghoul, both in her black flowing dress during the first part of the opera, and in her white dress in the second part. She has a beautifully clear and sparkling voice, which she used brilliantly to vocalize her lines, for the role actually contains no words. Her acting was first class, her presence unsettling throughout.

William was parted by Alec Avedissian. It is a role that requires a singer who is able to act and characterize a part vocally, rather than a part for showing off the beauty of the voice, and in this Avedissian performed well. He was suitably wide-eyed and naïve as he arrived at the house, accepting without thought the insolent behavior from Roderick’s valet, and became visibly increasingly shaken as he was subjected to the torments and terror of the visit. He possesses a sensitive baritone, secure and flexible which he used with skill to portray his character. The high point of his performance was the bedroom scene, in which he superbly caught the terror of the event, his expressive singing communicating the real fear and horror he was suffering.

Jon Jurgens played the role of Roderick Usher. He did not present a one-dimensionally crazed individual, rather Jurgens created a nuanced, sympathetic character, in which his suffering was also clearly visible, but who ultimately was unable to control the thoughts and feelings which were overwhelming him. He gave an excellent vocal display, not only singing with great power and force, but also with subtlety and a high level of expressivity.

Seokwon Hong led the Tiroler SymphonieOrchester, Innsbruck in a compelling performance of the score, managing to capture the driving, repetitive rhythmic vitality of the work, and its musical climaxes were delivered with energy and punch. It was also interesting to note the rich textures which Hong also managed to elicit from their playing. He also did an excellent job in balancing the power of the orchestra to the size of the new hall.

The performance on the opening night was sold out and received well-deserved and sustained applause. Looking down the schedule it appears that is selling out every night, and no doubt as the word spreads this will continue to be the case, for “The Fall of the House of Usher” is an excellent work, and this is an excellent production with an accomplished cast and orchestra. Luckily, it will be receiving regular performances until the end of January, so it might still be possible to find a ticket. One thing, however, that is surprising, is that the work has never been recorded!


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