12 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Gordon Getty—USHER HOUSE (C. Elsner, É. Dupuis, P. Ens, L. Delan, B. Cumberbatch; PentaTone PTC 5186 451)

Gordon Getty: USHER HOUSE [PentaTone PTC 5186 451]

GORDON GETTY (b. 1933): Usher House—C. Elsner (Edgar Allan Poe), É. Dupuis (Roderick Usher), P. Ens (Doctor Primus), L. Delan (Madeline Usher), B. Cumberbatch (the Attendant – spoken rôle); Orquestra Gulbenkian; Lawrence Foster [Recorded in the Grande Auditório of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal, during September 2011; PentaTone PTC 5186 451; 1CD, 67:00]

For better or worse, art and wealth are inextricably linked, the former more often than not relying upon the latter for its preservation.  Perhaps the most famous instance of a fortuitous intersection between wealth and artistic ambition is Sir Thomas Beecham: using his family’s considerable assets and influence both to stage operas and to present concert performances of symphonic repertory, Beecham built a remarkable career as a conductor; a career for which he was qualified by enthusiasm, discipline, and great natural talent if not by education.  More recent is the case of Gilbert Kaplan, the millionaire who abandoned his profitable career as a publisher in order to pursue a career as a conductor of Mahler’s Second Symphony and a would-be Mahler scholar.  Gordon Getty, one of the heirs to the sizeable Getty petroleum fortune, has also been successful in utilizing the resources at his disposal to establish for himself a considerable presence in contemporary Classical music.  However, any suggestion of dilettantism is contradicted by Mr. Getty’s legitimate musical studies as both a singer and a conductor.  Mr. Getty’s finances undoubtedly facilitate his music’s journey from creation to publication and performance, but it should not be assumed that the richness of a composer somehow cheapens his music.

As the composer himself acknowledges in his brief remarks printed in PentaTone’s liner notes for this recording, Mr. Getty set the essence rather than the letter of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’  Poe’s story is one of the earliest and most influential works of Gothic fiction in American literature, and many sources cite ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ as Poe’s most widely-read creation.  Poe was even more successful in ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ than in any of his other works in creating an omnipresent atmosphere of menace that pervades every sentence.  One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is the way in which a layered, intricately-detailed drama plays out so completely in a work of such brevity, Poe’s clever invocations of the Usher family legacy implicitly imparting a background to the story over which other writers would have spent scores of pages.  Poe’s work is sometimes criticized for the author’s extraordinary inventiveness being lost in streams of the extravagant, archaic language for which he had such as passion, but Poe’s verbosity in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is vital to the dank environment of the story’s setting.  Music figures prominently in the story, of course, not least in Poe’s descriptions of Roderick Usher’s frenzied guitar playing and his mention of the ‘last Waltz of Von Weber’ as the most frequent choice—and perhaps the only recognizable one—in Usher’s repertoire.  Conjuring a sense of the darkness and unalleviated mystery in Poe’s story is critical to the success of a musical setting of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and Mr. Getty’s music, though not arrestingly original or melodically memorable, evokes both an apt element of peril and a disturbing but effective suggestion of the inevitability of the destruction of the Usher line.  The story’s unnamed narrator is made Poe himself by Mr. Getty, and the strangely unnerving physician encountered by Poe’s narrator when he first arrives at the Usher mansion is given an increased profile.  Musically, Mr. Getty’s idiom is predominantly tonal but accessibly modern: there are passages that are reminiscent of the Bartók of Bluebeard’s Castle, and the sparseness of the sound and the depictions of emotional and social isolation and their effects upon men’s psyches recall the mature vocal works of Britten.  If this is not the sort of music that is likely to forever remain in a listener’s memory, it is mostly successful in capturing and retaining the listener’s attention.

The Attendant’s few lines are spoken by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, star of BBC’s smash Sherlock and the internationally-acclaimed film Warhorse, an instance of allying phenomenal talent with a paucity of material matched in the operatic discography only by the engagement of Prunella Scales for the cawing of the magpie on the Chandos recording of Rossini’s La gazza ladra.  Mr. Cumberbatch’s mellifluous voice is put to imaginative use despite the small task before him, his accents chilling but unfailingly beguiling.  How wonderful it would be to hear him as the Narrators in Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden, and Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex.

Mr. Getty sought to transform Madeline Usher into a sort of proto-Wagnerian heroine, an aspiring Brünnhilde who strives to be an agent of redemption rather than a victim of relentless fate.  The evil Doctor Primus becomes the orchestrator of Madeline’s destruction, his knowingly false pronouncement of her death rather than her brother’s mental instability leading to her presumed commitment to the tomb whilst she still lives.  She is tormented by ancestors among whom she is out of place, emotionally and spiritually.  American soprano Lisa Delan, a frequent collaborator in Mr. Getty’s projects, sings with an unflinching dedication that reveals the justification of the composer’s appreciation for her artistry.  Like Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Madeline is the central figure in the opera though her part in it is comparatively small.  Indeed, Mr. Getty, who also wrote the libretto for Usher House, essentially employs Madeline solely as a ‘sound effect,’ a wordless voice.  Ms. Delan acts convincingly with her voice, however, and it is through the conviction of her performance that Mr. Getty’s stated aim of making Madeline ‘endearing, not threatening’ is realized.

The unremittingly nasty Doctor Primus is sung with impressive depth of tone by Canadian bass Phillip Ens.  Doctor Primus and his importance in the drama are entirely Mr. Getty’s inventions, and in Usher House Primus is a sort of conflation of Offenbach’s Coppélius and Docteur Miracle.  Mr. Ens’s excellent diction makes Primus an impressively frightening character, his utterances dripping with venomous insinuations.  The precise nature of Primus’s relationship to the Usher family is unspecified, but the intimate knowledge that he displays of the family’s history and lineage in his interview with Poe in the mansion’s observatory in Scene Four—after which, significantly, he disappears from the opera—suggests a deep and decidedly sinister involvement with the family.  In the previous scene, in which Madeline is laid to rest in the family crypt, Poe discovers a tomb inscribed with ‘Lord Primus Usher, mortuit anno 474,’ which introduces the possibility that Primus is himself an ‘undead’ member of the ill-fated clan.  Mr. Ens sings securely and with an intelligent depiction of evil that avoids falling into the clichés of a stock operatic villain.

Roderick Usher is movingly portrayed by Québécois baritone Étienne Dupuis [why he is denied the accent aigu in his name in the print materials accompanying the recording is a mystery], whose firm, resonant voice makes of Roderick a warmer, less obviously neurotic figure than he is in Poe’s story.  There are in Mr. Dupuis’s performance far greater affection and tenderness than Roderick displays in Poe’s depiction of him, though it can be argued that these qualities are implicit in the increasingly unsettling effect that Madeline’s seeming deterioration and demise have on Roderick’s psyche.  Mr. Dupuis also sings with excellent diction, taking advantage of Mr. Getty’s elimination of several of Roderick’s idiosyncrasies—absent are the hypersensitivities to light and sound, as well as the unrelieved paranoia and despair that unsettle Poe’s narrator—to create an amiable, approachable character who is more the doting brother, grown-up frat boy, and conventional operatic hero—Valentin in Gounod’s Faust, to compare him to one rôle in Mr. Dupuis’s repertory—than the troubled, unapologetically weird protagonist in a Gothic horror story.  Roderick in Poe’s story is not so much a tragic figure as one on whom the effects of tragedy are enacted, but Mr. Getty’s Roderick aims at achieving a very personal tragic dénouement.  Above all, what Mr. Dupuis’s Roderick possesses that is alien to the character in Poe is charm: Mr. Dupuis’s uncomplicated, superbly-sung performance leaves an impression of Roderick as a good man overcome by the powerful legacy and manifest calamity of his genetics.

Mr. Getty’s transformation of the story’s narrator into Poe himself is not entirely successful from a dramatic perspective.  Whereas the narrator in the story is a terror-stricken observer, Poe in Usher House emerges as a well-meaning but ultimately somewhat creepy voyeur whose participation in the drama seems slightly exploitative.  These importance of these reservations is lessened by the performance of German tenor Christian Elsner, an accomplished artist whose performances of Mozart and Wagner rôles have won special praise.  Compared with his typical operatic fare, Mr. Getty’s music for Poe is an easy task for Mr. Elsner, but the rôle contains rhythms that must be difficult for a singer whose first language is not English.  Mr. Elsner proves consistently eloquent and idiomatic, however, even channeling a certain poetic ardor for his delivery of Poe’s recitation of his poem describing Madeline, ‘Where is my lady, O where has she gone.’  [Mr. Getty’s mere suggestion that Poe, admittedly not the most innovative or inspired of poets, could have written lines as trite as ‘Follow her easterly, follow the trace / Of her toe on the wind; she has run to the place / Where the morning begins, and the sea, and the sky. / Beauty and grace she is; beauty and grace / Hang in the air like chimes where she goes by’ is appalling.  It must be hoped that no listener mistakes this for genuine Poe.]  Mr. Elsner is a forthright participant in the drama, the lean sound of his voice making Poe’s engagement in the story as obviously intellectual as emotional.  Where Mr. Getty scores over Poe is in his depiction of Poe as a man who is honestly concerned for his friend, though Roderick addressing Poe as ‘Eddie’ is an inauthentic appeal to modern sensibilities (even in correspondence with his wife and closest family and friends, Poe signed himself as either E.A.P. or Edgar, and in her famous acrostic Valentine poem to Poe his wife used his full name as the foundation).  Mr. Elsner’s poised, responsive singing creates a sympathetic Poe whose affection for Roderick makes the brief Prologue and Poe’s brief closing lines seem perfunctory and unnecessary but otherwise intensifies the opera’s impact as a compelling human drama rather than a literary abstraction or curiosity.

Considering the respect with which his works are regarded throughout the world, it is surprising that the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe have inspired so few musical settings of quality.  Unlike the similar but larger-scaled Gothic works of Sir Walter Scott, perhaps Poe’s works present insurmountable challenges to composers and librettists, the peculiar skill with which Poe created very specific settings and characters for his works proving prohibitive to artists who generally wish to maintain careful control of these aspects of their own work.  Extracting details and ideas from Poe’s stories is difficult because his works are meticulously-woven tapestries that threaten to unravel when particular threads are molested.  ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is remarkable in the way that it poses far more questions than it answers, and the reader ultimately knows everything and nothing about Roderick Usher all at once.  These are qualities that are difficult to duplicate in an opera, in which even the most imaginative composer must deal with certain finite elements of space and time.  Usher House plays out like one of the radio plays that were popular in the decades before the development of television, all of the seeds of Poe’s story in place but germinating rather differently within the confines of the opera.  Mr. Getty’s work receives top-quality treatment from an excellent cast, an orchestra on excellent form, and an expressive, musical conductor with extensive experience in modern opera, all recorded by PentaTone in sound of fantastic clarity.  In this regard, it might be truthfully but slightly uncharitably suggested that the recording is better than the opera itself.  Mr. Getty is an insightful, learned composer who has here produced an atmospheric, enjoyable opera.  It is no disrespect to Usher House to state that Mr. Getty’s opera inspires thought about what Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the vein of Die Frau ohne Schatten might have done with the odd situations and bewildering people of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’