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The Fall of the House of Usher
OPERA REVIEW Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2013-02-26

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Composer: Philip Glass; Librettist: Arthur Yorinks. At: Chicago Opera Theater at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. Tickets: 312-334-7777 or www.chicagooperatheater.org; $45-$125. Runs through: March 1

Edgar Allan Poe's short horror story The Fall of the House of Usher gets a very homoerotic interpretation in Chicago Opera Theater's new staging of the 1987 opera adaptation by composer Philip Glass and librettist Arthur Yorinks. And it's also a very strong artistic introduction for the company's new general director and conductor Andreas Mitisek, who also concurrently runs California's Long Beach Opera where this co-production previously debuted.

No doubt some purists might have objections to director Ken Cazan taking many liberties in updating the Poe classic and refashioning a gay relationship at the center of the story. But for the most part, Cazan's reinterpretation works at heightening the drama and giving a logical motivation to the story's two central male characters and their reunion after so many years.

The opera concerns the sickly Roderick Usher (tenor Ryan MacPherson), who sends a pleading email to his school-age friend, William (baritone Lee Gregory), to come see him as soon as possible in his oppressive family mansion. Roderick's sister, Madeline (mezzo-soprano Suzan Hanson), is deathly ill, and Roderick is also feeling the stress of being the last in his long historic family line.

Cazan stages a very fluid production, illuminating Glass' score of pulsating repetitions by having Hanson's Madeline physically shadow Roderick as an unseen presence who both torments him and pushes him toward the supportive and caring arms of William. Working with set designer Alan E. Muraoka and lighting designer David Martin Jacques, Cazan creates a brutalistic modern setting that also allows for flights of fancy—particularly William's sexualized dream of Roderick.

Where Cazan may have miscalculated in his staging is by having the omnipresent mansion scenery shifters dressed by costume designer Jacqueline Saint Anne as ghoulish 1980s punk and heavy metal rockers. I suppose these black-clad guys are supposed to be modern rocker interpretations of gargoyles, but I felt disapproving Usher ancestor ghosts dressed in period clothes of previous generations would have been more effective—particularly at the end when they prevent William from rescuing Roderick.

Each of the performers gave his or her all dramatically (including the physician of Jonathan Mack and the servant of Nick Shelton) in Cazan's very physical staging—particularly MacPherson and Gregory, who get to do plenty of embracing. They're also all vocally up to snuff, although conductor Mitisek did occasionally overpower them with the fine forces of the orchestra.

With The Fall of the House of Usher, it's reassuring to see that Mitisek has plans to keep Chicago Opera Theater at the forefront of presenting theatrically daring and imaginative opera. And the fact that it has so much gay content is an added bonus for the LGBT community to support this very fine production.


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