GETTY Usher House • Lawrence Foster, cond; Christian Elsner (Poe); Etienne Dupuis (Roderick Usher); Philip Ens (Dr. Primus); Lisa Delan (Madeline Usher); Gulbenkian O • PENTATONE 5186451(SACD: 67:05 Text and Translation)
I wanted to reviewRead more this CD because I am enough of a Gordon Getty fan that I like to hear everything he has written, and I knew that this Poe story was famous for its atmosphere and that even Debussy was setting it to music when he died.
Imagine my surprise, then, to open the booklet and discover that Getty rewrote Poe’s story. The unnamed narrator/protagonist who visits Roderick Usher is now Poe himself. Roderick’s painful reaction to light and noise is downplayed. Madeline, who only appears in the hallway as a semi-ghostly apparition in the story, is now an “agent of redemption,” though she only moans and groans and doesn’t have any lines. The evil agent is now Dr. Primus, a character only spoken of (not by name) but never seen or heard in the Poe story.
Just so I could get a handle on this new adaptation, I went online and read Poe’s original story, which I had not seen before. As Getty points out, it is mostly mood: the first five of its 12 pages describe the bleakness and desolation of Usher house, its servants and inhabitants, before anything much ever happens. The original story’s plot is as follows:
The unnamed narrator rides on horseback to visit his old childhood friend Roderick Usher (no trains come near the place). Roderick is emaciated and nervous. Light of any kind annoys him, as well as sounds, with the sole exception of his own guitar playing, to which he accompanies himself with rotten old poems sung to his own made-up melodies. Apparently the House of Usher is somewhat but not entirely inbred, and both Roddy and his sister Madeline (fraternal twins) are the sole surviving heirs. Maddy, too, suffers from the nervous disorder, but not being as strong as Roddy her end seems a bit closer. The narrator only sees Maddy once, walking through the hallway. A few days later, and Roddy announces her demise. He has her placed in a coffin in the basement but doesn’t want to embalm or bury her right away, as he feels the family quack might be able to perform an autopsy and discover the cause of the nervous condition. A few days later, a dark and terrible storm engulfs the house. The narrator/Poe tries to calm Roddy down by reading him a story about a knight named Ethelred who barges into the domain of an old hermit, who appears to be protected by a dragon on his doorstep. Every noise mentioned in the story—the clang of sword on breastplate and the death throes of the dragon—seems to be heard by him from somewhere inside the house. Eventually Roddy tells the narrator that they had accidentally buried Maddy alive, that he has heard her trying to get out of the basement for a few days but that he didn’t have the nerve to go down and let her out. She finally appears at the doorway, bloody and emaciated, and falls on her brother before expiring. The shock makes Roddy expire too. Bye-bye to the House of Usher.
Aside from the plot changes, Usher House is now more than just a place where dusty old people read dusty old books. It has now become a repository of learning, a place where the family has “brought together tracts, monographs, manuscripts of the greatest interest and rarity,” with pride of place belonging “to our mediaeval archives….The whole house is designed for learning.” This is, indeed, a major change from the original story.
Unlike Plump Jack, Getty’s music here can stand on its own as a listening experience without the need to see the action. It is tonal but not “obviously” melodic; as the late Moondog (Louis Hardin) might have said, “I am considered avant-garde in rhythm but old-fashioned in harmony,” but Getty uses neighboring tonalities in a very creative manner, whereas Moondog did not. Moreover, the music morphs and develops in interesting ways.
Elsner, the tenor singing Poe, has a nice timbre but a persistent wobble, and his diction is only intermittently clear. Dupuis, our Usher, has a more solid voice but only slightly clearer diction. Both, however, present their characters well and they are fine musicians. There is a certain strophic character about the sung lines in the first scene, and the orchestration is exceedingly clever, supporting the voices or commenting on the drama in turn. When Roderick suggests having a ball, for instance, the rhythm changes to 3/4 time and a quirky waltz melody arises; when he talks of the landscape around the house as being desolate, the orchestra reflects this in both its melodic and timbral treatment. This sort of thing continues throughout the opera, the sign of an assured composer who understands his art and knows exactly how to morph and change the music, not only in such a way that it supports or echoes the drama but also to keep the listener on the edge of the seat. This is first-class music.
Then comes the first of several major deviations from Poe: Roderick refers to a book called Exon Domesday which is not in the original story. In this book, King Edward the Confessor ordered that Usher House be destroyed “stone from stone, and the stones cast in Usher Tarn.” Roderick’s father bought back the land, drained it, exhumed the stones, and brought them over to America to rebuild the house. (This does, however, seem like a lot of work when you could buy limestone cheaper over here. I doubt if there was any intuitive “learning” in the original stones.) Nevertheless, Getty’s ability to set text to music is indeed remarkable. Absolutely none of the libretto is written in what one would call musical meters, no rhyming or other poetic devices are consciously used, yet the music has a wonderful lilt to it that carries the words with perfect equanimity.
The mood changes of the orchestra continue as Madeline is introduced: a lighter, headier sound, created by a few high percussion instruments such as a glockenspiel. Dr. Primus insists that Madeleine take her medicine, as “She is getting so much better.” Shades of Dr. Miracle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann! Poe then sings a song that he recalls Roddy having written and Maddy having sung when they were children at school. The song has exactly the kind of odd, quirky sound that one might expect a modern composer to use to re-imagine Renaissance music. (This song is recorded with the tenor at a bit of a distance and in an echo chamber; not too surprisingly, the wobble dissipates somewhat at a distance, and Elsner sings a lovely pianissimo high G that floats beautifully.)
And here is where Getty ties in his fictional doctor with Usher’s fictional “medical archives:” Roderick firmly believes that these ancient books will help the doctor cure her of her illness. (Apparently, no one ever told him how pathetic and ignorant the medical profession was back in the bad old alchemy days.) Yet almost immediately after saying this, he begs Poe to leave the next morning and take Maddy with him to put into a clinic, surrounded by “the best doctors,” which Roddy will pay for. Suddenly, the attendant (a speaking role) introduces the “guests” for the ball, Roderick’s relatives and ancestors. When Maddy enters, the guests shrink from her presence as “vampires from a crucifix.” The music then rises to a loud and rather grotesque dance rhythm for a short bit before settling back into a minuet. This minuet then becomes grotesque as Madeline dances, dazed, and then falls. Dr. Primus indicates that she is dead; Roddy collapses in grief, and Poe comforts him.
The next scene, then, represents a clean break in time and mood from the previous portion of the opera. Maddy is being buried in the family crypt; the coffin is sealed as the mourners leave. Dr. Primus suggests that since the line of Ushers seems to be coming to an end, Poe might wish to join them in the observatory (non-existent in the original story) the following night to discuss who might take the valuable collection of knowledge in the house. Oddly enough, by this point in the recording, Elsner’s voice has become firmer and less wobbly—probably a different day of recording.
The next scene is in the observatory. Philip Ens, the singer performing Dr. Primus, is a well-known bass specializing in modern music who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera (Tiresias in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, among other roles), but his voice has picked up a loose vibrato by the time of this recording. Dr. Primus tells Poe that much of the knowledge housed by the Ushers was real knowledge of the kind opposed by Roman law and then by the Catholic Church, that Madeline refused to learn it, but that he (Primus) wishes to pass it on lest it be lost forever. The suggestion is, then, very strong, that Poe is the one to continue the knowledge of Usher House. Primus suggests that they meet again in three nights, when the “haze of miasma that rises from the tarn and enfolds this house” will be lifted at that time by an “illumination” that will come with a storm.
Poe and Roderick are in the latter’s apartments three nights later. Poe confesses to Roddy that Primus wants to make him heir to the Usher knowledge. Roderick says that he expected as much, but warns him to beware of Primus. Poe tells Roderick what Primus told him, of the storm and the illumination. Roderick mentions that this is All-Hallows’ Eve (again, a detail different from the original story). Roderick suggests that “Dr. Primus” is an ancient ancestor of his, who must find a vessel to continue “the covenant with the Elders” made 14 centuries earlier. And Roderick also suggests that there is another dread, something frightful, that he fears, and has obsessed him for hours, but he cannot put it all into words. Poe offers to withdraw, but Roddy begs him to stay, to see it through and help him if he can. And, yes, Poe reads the “Mad Tryst” of Sir Launcelot Channing and his knight Ethelred, as in the original story. The sounds described elsewhere are heard, and intrude on their mood, but Roderick has a different explanation for them. In this version, Primus has confronted Madeline in the armory below, but the sister—who, as in the original story, was not yet dead—has thrown him aside “like an empty sack,” thus destroying the evil of Primus and the elders. (At long last, the voice of Madeline is heard, singing a wordless line or two from far away.) Eventually, Madeline appears at the doorway of the parlor, runs to Roderick, embraces him, and they both fall dead. According to the libretto’s instructions, “The house is heard more than seen to collapse … in the darkness except for quick flashes of light.” Poe then returns to the role of narrator, saying that he “fled aghast” from that chamber and the mansion. Usher House is done with.
While Getty’s rewriting of this fictional story for dramatic purposes is imaginative and creative, my personal feeling is that an already somewhat incredulous tale has been taken to the level of Gothic fiction, of undead ancestors and “forces of evil” that border on vampire and ghoul stories. Yet the opera is highly entertaining, and I was entranced by Getty’s spectacular ability to create such a wonderful atmosphere and sustain it for 67 minutes. This is a real tour de force, certainly the best and most sustained musical creation of his I have heard, and as such I recommend your listening to it.