Any director or performer’s eyes must light up at the prospect of presenting a story by Edgar Allen Poe. Laden with symbolism, metaphor and good old-fashioned thrills, the Victorian writer is a theatrical godsend, delivering a come-and-get-me opportunity to anybody who wants to display his theatrical prowess.
But in spite of the amazing possibilities that the American Gothic author offers, relatively few dramatic adaptations have been produced. Maybe he hasn’t yet lived down the gaudy kitsch horror films by Roger Corman of the early sixties with Vincent Price serving up enough ham to keep a horde of flesh-crazed zombies happy for weeks.
Philip Glass’s 1988 shortish opera of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is one of the rare examples of a stage version and forms the basis of Opera Melancholica. The plot of Usher, in a nutshell, is as follows: – Roderick Usher lives with his mentally unstable twin sister in a crumbling old house, reputedly built from tombstones. He writes to his childhood friend to come and help in his hour of need. The sister, Madeline, eventually dies and Roderick loses his mind, taking his friend with him in a folie a deux as the house collapses around them. Symbolic? I should say so. It’s all here – murder, incest, homosexuality and the supernatural – what’s not to get depressed about?
It is debatable as to whether the situation in the Poe story is real or a figment of Roderick’s troubled mind. Director Serge van Veggel has opted for the latter, setting his production, not in the house, but in psychiatric operating/lecture theatre dominated by a giant three meter high skull surrounded by tiered seating. After the skull has been lifted away, but remaining a menacing hovering presence, most of the action takes place on a small book-littered island in the middle of the stage. I say island because the whole thing is surrounded by water in which the hapless singers are doomed to splash around. Wasn’t sure on the symbolism of this, maybe that no man is an island or that depression feels like drowning?
Because the Glass opera is quite short, Opera2Day has decided to add a few extras to make an evening of it. After being welcomed into the auditorium by an on-stage augmented string quartet playing some Glass compositions, we are greeted by a doctor with white coat and clip board. He delivers a lecture on melancholia, inviting the audience to participate with their own experiences. Now, as this was all in Dutch and my grasp of the language is poor, it would be unfair for me to dwell too much on it but it did strike me as being over long and strange that it should be played for laughs – although maybe this was to cheer up the statistically one in six of the audience who were already presumed depressed even before the show proper started.
Things got under way with a young boy wandering across the stage, enigmatically blowing bubbles followed by sad Madeline’s splashing dance of despair. The opera itself, once it started was a pretty dramatic affair with Van Veggel pulling out all the stops, some of which maybe a bit too far. All the while the good doctor hovers in the background, observing.
Despite it being an opera, there is remarkably little singing but what impressed me most about the show was Argentinian tenor Santiago Burgi as Roderick. A star in his own country he is now preparing to take Europe by storm and has every chance of doing so. With a fine voice, obvious acting ability and a strong stage presence he was undoubtedly, after the skull, the star of the show.
Emlyn Stam’s New European Ensemble, under the baton of Carlo Boccadora, were obviously very familiar with Philip Glass and sounded excellent throughout.
Visually the whole thing was spectacular and the snow-covered dénouement was a truly memorable theatrical experience with the skull being lowered back into place as the young boy emerges from it still blowing bubbles. The books, and everything else, had been strewn across the stage and all sense of structure and sanity had disintegrated. Poor Madeline’s prone Ophelia-like body lies in the water and by the end Roderick is soaking wet and completely mad – and who can blame him? Michael Hasted at Het Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague, 30th January 2020
Opera Melanchlica is on tour until March.
Listen to the ArtsTalk Radio special dedicated to OPERA MELANCHOLICA featuring interview with singers, musicians and production staff.