Anyone who says that opera is dying or dead and there is no hope of brining in new audiences was obviously not at Saturday night's phenomenal pop-up production of Philip Glass' "The Fall of the House of Usher," given by Wolf Trap Opera in collaboration with Halcyon Stage, CityDance and the Inscape Chamber Orchestra at the unpresuming Dock 5 of DC's Union Market:
Make-Up & Hair-Jill Trunbull
Roderick Usher-Jonas Hacker
Madeline Usher-Madison Leonard
Servant-Matthew Adam Fleisher(Wolf Trap Opera Studio)
We gathered for the sold out event in the open space set up with bleachers on three sides for several hundred people as moderately loud rock music was played by a DJ and bars opened. I grabbed my second row seat as I was worried about the sound, since amplification was required. Dock 5 is a loading dock now transformed into function space with concrete walls where I have attended numerous food charity events over the years in the amazingly restored Union Market. This year, the Halcyon Stage began using it as a performance space under the directorship of Septime Webre, who previously ran the Washington ballet. Saturday night was the culmination and ending of the season, and if this was anything near what came previously, they have a hit on their hands. I understand the collaboration will continue next season under the Wolf Trap Opera's new Untrapped program.
The floor had a large rectangular cushioned dance floor and there were no sets at all at first, as these were brought on and off by the performers as the one hour program progressed. The rear concrete wall was used throughout for some pretty awesome projections that mimicked the music to perfection.
Before the music began Mr. Hacker entered and at first looked masked, but indeed had such dark eye make-up on making circles around his eyes and sported dark round glasses in a punkish Goth outfit of black(I like to use the term distressed clothing). He sat at a desk and wrote a letter to his boyhood friend, William, who is the narrator of the original Edgar Allen Poe story. As the music starts, we see projections of beds of rounded stones which are seemingly being attacked from the sides by shards of glass from the sides. The tempo of the projections always matched to music to perfection furthering the excellent work of Mr. Morse. The dancers come out in varying costumes of black such as shorts, torn jackets, torn tutus and encircle Roderick. They too have blackened eyes and are in some manner, I felt, in his imagination.
Mr. Edquist enters, having read his friend's letter, and is now making the journey to the house of Usher singing, "Nearly there..." as the dancers are frozen in time around him. He carries a small worn suitcase and holds a small chest as well.
Back in the house, Roderick is combing Madeline's long hair. Ms. Leonard is in a long white gauzy gown with an almost underwear-like bustier. As Ben arrives there is a duet for the mean as they make their way through the maze of dancers. I need to add that these dancers were not merely floated, the CityDance performers were all young and extremely athletic tumbling all over climbing and jumping the furniture and seemed to never stop for the entire hour. The music needs something like this as there are indeed very long stretches without any singing. It was a brilliant directorial attempt indeed.
Mr. Fleisher's servant did not have a lot to sing, but his impressive bass gave great intensity to his role; he was in tails with arms torn off, knee length torn pants and had arms covered with tattoos as he carried a candlestick as many of the dancers also did. As he uttered "Come this way..." all I could think of was Lurch from the Addams Family or something out of Rocky Horror!
The doctor enters with a candelabra, black plastic bag over his shoulder in an all white plastic smock with a large single optic lens mounted on one eye. Mr. Nestorak has some shrieking tenor highs here that were really scary as we all thought he was going to gouge out someone's heart for sure!
William offers the small chest to Roderick as a guest and opens it to reveal a music box to which the dancers dance as Roderick leans over the stool the box is on and moves around it almost in agony.
Madeline has no words at all in the opera, but her music is some of the most gorgeous vocalises that you could wish for; haunting for the most part, but seemingly coming out of nowhere as she wandered around aimlessly. By this time we realized that three of the dancers were similarly garbed as the three main singers and were some kind of alter egos or duplicate masques.
The projections changed periodically and the next set seemed to be grass growing up from a pond and then intertwining and weaving. The moved on to large blobs which would move up or down and keep pace with the music as the dancers gave us an amazing choreographed piece to the long interlude. I was reminded of one of my earlier ballets "Glass Pieces" which I adored and indeed his music is truly superb for dancing.
Again Roderick combs Madeline's long hair as William wanders around with each mime dancer mimicking their other self.
A bed is rolled on and William attempts sleep as Madeline wanders still vocalizing. The music slowed as William slept and the bassoon (superb playing) droned. He was staled, "No, it's me.." as Madeline is in the rear in a shaft of bright light and her voice intensifies with the music and William begs her to stop as the percussion (more superb playing) grows louder. The dancers bring forwards a huge black sheet over William in bed and when pulled back he is all alone.
The scene changes as Roderick paints and William sings "Cold and damp, where is the sun..." which becomes a duet. The projections have now changed to something like gooey oozing striated "tar." William tells Roderick he must go outside and get some air, but the doctor interrupts, whispers something to Roderick and he tears his glasses off and falls, "Madeline is dead" is his utterance to his friend as the "Madeline" dancer lays on a table at the center under a white gauze (all I could think of was Juliet in the tomb) with the other dancers hovering and tumbling over her. Roderick sings, "This our souls could twine..." which again becomes a duet for the two men (this was quite common ion the entire work). Roderick finally reveals, "Don't you know we are twins?"
The next scene has the two men on opposite sides of a large table which the dancers keep turning and the men change sides on.
After a while Roderick has some sort of a fit as the music is alternating fast and slow and he calls the doctor a murderer in a high tenor wail that was truly shocking. Once again the dancers enrobe the stage with the large black sheet and we then see Roderick wandering as Madeline is wailing. The doctor and William grab him and then the dancers lift him as William tells him they are leaving the house tomorrow. Roderick cowers as Madeline is vocalizing now standing on a pedestal to the side of the stage. Four dancers carry her on as Roderick seems astonished; she is vocalizing at top strength now over the flute and pouding drum.
William sings of when they were kids and how they played as the two mime dancers mimic the story of them fighting a hermit (two dancers play the hermit standing on top of each other with a sheet over them. William goes on to tell of how they fought a dragon and cut off its head which is shown in a projection. Roderick sings, "Yes I hear it..." and Madeline is now brought on stage and stands on a small block as Roderick walks to her. We can see she is covered with blood at her neck (the dragon's head cut off?) and hands. Madeline stretches her arms to her brother and the dancers left her and bring her to him. Confetti of some sorts falls from the ceiling as the twins fall to the ground lifeless and William runs from the house.
I know I am not the greatest of writers, but just writing this experience down actually has my head in such a frenzy as I am almost reliving it. My only regret about this spectacular production was that there was only one performance as the audience went nuts after the final note and clearly more people wanted to be there with the sold out crowd. There were a number of opera regulars as well as Wolf Trap supporters, but there were hundreds of new faces, many of whom clearly had never been to an opera before. How great is that?!
These performers gave their all singing like a dream, but also dancing and moving with such agility and intensity that we rarely see on the operatic stage. There was a meet-the-artists reception afterwards for the entire audience and the singers were gracious enough to speak of this experience and how novel and exciting it was. Well, not just for them, but for all of us!
What a perfect way to close out the spring opera season here before we head overseas for some time....so no reports from me for a while.
ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
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