GORDON GETTY: Usher House – Christian Elsner, Tenor/Etienne Dupuis, bari./Phillip Ens, Bass/Lisa Delan, sop./Orquesta Gulbenkian/Lawrence Foster – Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 451 (6/13/13) (Distr. by Naxos), 67:00 ****1/2:
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of Edgar Allen Poe’s masterpieces. This is a story based on the psychological horrors of blurred lines between the real and the imagined, the alive and the dead, the spacious and the claustrophobic.
Gordon Getty’s treatment, Usher House, is interesting in that he allows the role of the narrator (and life-long friend of Roderick Usher) to be Edgar Allen Poe, himself. The libretto is by Getty himself and is quite well written. Getty explains that he has taken further liberties with the original story. Specifically, he allows the narrator (Poe) and the siblings, Roderick and Madeline, to be figures of good who are somewhat unaware of the evil that is represented by Madeline’s doctor, Primus, and even the house itself. In terms of the story, another way to look at this; adhered to by Getty, is that the protagonists cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure, so it assumes a supernatural terrible character of its own; a monstrosity that controls the fate of its inhabitants. Poe, in the original story, creates confusion between the living things and inanimate objects by assimilating the physical house of Usher with the genetic line of the Usher family, which he refers to as the “House of Usher”.
Opera needs to rely on the mood created by vocal line and acting and the aura of the music itself. Gordon Getty is an excellent vocal composer and his main roles are given lush, sometimes “stressful” lines that exude everything from naiveté to apprehension to surrender. The necessarily small cast performs really well here, especially Etienne Dupuis as Roderick and Christian Elsner as Poe/narrator.
Gordon Getty is a truly fascinating figure. He is the son of American oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty and after selling his inherited interests in Getty Oil to Texaco, he was able to invest quite successfully in everything from wineries to shopping centers. His true love was that of opera and was an aspiring opera singer at one point. Getty has actually made quite a mark in contemporary vocal music, including a very successful opera about Shakespeare’s “Falstaff” – Plump Jack and a really interesting cantata about Jean d’Arc, Joan and the Bells. His language is tonal, attention getting and dramatic and I should imagine everyone would find something to like. [But that doesn’t stop all his recordings—including this one—for selling for only a few dollars on Amazon…Ed.]
This is not the first time that Poe’s claustrophobic tale has been turned successfully into an opera. Other composers who have made contributions of varying success include Debussy, Philip Glass and rocker Peter Hammill. I think Gordon Getty’s is one of the better treatments. It is a compact length, wasting no emotional or psychological time or trouble. The music is very fine and the libretto develops nicely as we feel the terrible truth to gradually build. This is a good work with terrific performances, led by the esteemed Lawrence Foster by the Lisbon based Orquestra Gulbenkian (new for me, and impressive) and the recording on Pentatone is crystal clear. Highly recommended!