Friday, January 16, 2015

Debussy: The Fall of the House of Usher (Dutch TV, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” we watched last night was a complete — more or less — performance of Debussy’s second opera, La Chute de la Maison Usher, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” and left incomplete after his death. (At least two other composers, Peter Hammill and Gordon Getty — yes, a relative of those Gettys — have written operas based on “The Fall of the House of Usher.”) What survived was a complete libretto (Debussy’s own adaptation of the Poe story) and the first 25 minutes of what was projected to be an hour-long short opera (he planned to pair it with another Poe adaptation, “The Devil in the Belfry,” which he never even started), plus nine disconnected fragments from later in the piece. Debussy never orchestrated any of it, but his orchestral style is well known enough that various attempts to reconstruct it have been made, including one by Carolyn Abbate and Robert Kyr in the 1970’s, by Chilean composer Juan Allende-Blin also in the 1970’s and by Robert Orledge in the 2000’s. The Allende-Blin version — recorded on EMI in the 1980’s and issued first on LP and then on CD, coupled with two more works by French composers based on stories or poems by Poe (André Caplet’s The Masque of the Red Death and Florent Schmitt’s The Haunted Palace — ironically, based on a poem that occurs within “The Fall of the House of Usher”) — merely orchestrated Debussy’s surviving fragments. Orledge attempted to fill in the gaps and present the work “complete,” though towards the end he seems to have given up on attempting to duplicate Debussy’s style of vocal writing and the characters merely speak their lines accompanied by Debussyan instrumental music (the original meaning of the term “melodrama,” by the way: a spoken text declaimed against a musical accompaniment). What we were watching last night was a 2008 performance on Dutch TV, with a Dutch cast — baritone Geert Smits as Roderick Usher, baritone Henk Neven as his friend (the character who narrates the story in Poe’s original), tenor Yves Saelens as the doctor (though Debussy originally marked this role for a baritone, too — in his one completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, he had also written the male lead on the cusp between tenor and baritone) and soprano Cécile de Boever as Roderick’s sister Madeline, who has basically driven her brother crazy by suffering from a long, wasting disease (remember this was a personal issue for Poe; both his parents died of tuberculosis as, much later, did his wife) and coming back to life after she has been pronounced dead and interred in the Usher family crypt (Poe also wrote a story called “The Premature Burial” and the idea of being buried by mistake while one was still alive clearly haunted him). Not that we could make out much of the story from what we were watching, which was a semi-staged concert performance in the original French with Dutch subtitles — and about the only attempt at staging was to have de Boever come out and walk down a staircase in front of some red curtains at the beginning and again at the end, when all she has to do is scream to let Roderick Usher, his long-suffering friend and the audience know she’s still alive.

It’s clear both from this and from Pelléas (Debussy’s one completed opera and the only one performed during his lifetime — among his unrealized projects were not only another Poe adaptation but Romeo and Juliet and a spit-in-Wagner’s-eye attempt to do his own Tristan et Isolde, using the French version of the legend by Joseph Bedier rather than the German one by Gottfried von Strassburg Wagner had used) that Debussy’s tastes in operatic material ran towards shadowy stories that were frankly unrealistic and concerned more with mood than realistic human emotions or actions, and his style of setting text basically used the voices to carry the principal texture and relegated the orchestra to the background — the opposite of Wagner’s style and, I suspect, a deliberate rejection of Wagner by a composer who had such a bizarre love-late relationship with Wagner he referred to him as “Old Klingsor’s Ghost” and tore up the first draft of Pelléas because he thought too much Wagnerism had sneaked into it. What that means is that Debussy’s operas can work but only if you know what the singers are singing about — which requires you either to be a native speaker of French or to have learned it so well you can absorb it instantly. This is why Mark Elder’s 1980’s recording of Pelléas was such a revelation to me: it was in English, and while English translations of German and Italian opera are usually disasters, the English version of Pelléas brought home the score’s dramatic beauty and intensity in ways no French-language recordings ever had. All of this is a rather roundabout way of saying that I don’t think I can really judge Debussy’s The Fall of the House of Usher until I can see a staged performance sung in English; what emerges here is a lot of convincing atmosphere that seems to capture the aura of terror and dread that suffuses Poe’s tale and is effectively communicated by his matter-of-fact (at least by 19th-century standards) writing style, and an effective frisson at the end when the supposedly dead Madeline reappears and screams. But it’s little more than an operatic curio by a composer whose instrumental works have become cornerstones of the standard repertory for both orchestra and piano, but whose one finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, still has no more than a toehold on the operatic repertoire — as I noted to Charles, Debussy may have only written one finished opera, but so did Beethoven, and Fidelio is a repertory work while Pelléas nestles on the fringe!