Tonight and Friday: Chicago Opera Theater's sexed-up The Fall of the House of Usher



Alas, shes dead (or is she?)
  • Doris Koplik
  • Alas, she's dead (or is she?)
Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher with a score by Philip Glass?

That's a no-brainer.

Poe's heavy-breathing short story, an exercise in sustained suspense, and Glass's throbbing, hypnotic music are made for each other. For both, it's all about the atmosphere and the tension. Making that work for an audience is another matter.

In Chicago Opera Theater's current production of Glass's rarely seen 1987 opera, director Ken Cazan has pulled it off by making sense of it. The first time he heard Usher, Cazan says in a program note, he immediately understood it as centered on an "unfulfilled homosexual relationship."

Poe's gothic tale, with its hints of opium dreams and incest, is a first-person narrative. William, who tells the story, travels to the Usher family mansion after receiving a desperate summons from his childhood friend Roderick Usher. Once there, he finds his buddy distraught about the fatal illness of an elusive twin sister, Madeline. (Roderick's symptoms, as Glass must have noticed, include an acute sensitivity to sound.) When she dies, the two of them put her in a coffin, apparently too soon.

It's all murky enough to have challenged explicators for nearly two centuries, but Cazan has a reasonably plausible interpretation: the crazed and conflicted Roderick is suffering from a long-repressed attraction to William, and Madeline represents her brother's incompletely buried "feminine side."

In this 80-minute production, with COT's new general director Andreas Mitisek conducting a twelve-piece orchestra (including synthesizer and guitar), Cazan gives it a sexy, campy, updated staging. The effect is steamy and voyeuristic—like being dropped into the middle of somebody else's eminently watchable nightmare.

The singers, repeating their roles from a recent run at Mitisek's other company, Long Beach Opera, include tenor Ryan MacPherson as the jittery, unpredictable Roderick and baritone Lee Gregory as his confused friend. Trios that blend their voices with that of soprano Suzan Hanson—who, as Madeline, has no words but casts a rich, ghostly spell of pure sound—are now among my favorite Glass moments. A troupe of goth supernumeraries keep the smartly stark scenery, by Alan E. Muraoka, moving; lighting designer David Martin Jacques provides the scary shadows.

It's Glass, after all, so there's no guarantee that you won't find a bit of tedium among the chills and thrills at Chez Usher. And Rocky Horror Picture Show might occasionally come to mind. But when this Madeline knocks her red leather ankle boots against the wall of her glass coffin, it kicks.

The Fall of the House of Usher, Wed 2/27 and Fri 3/1, 7:30 PM, Chicago Opera Theater, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, 312-704-8414,, $35-$125.

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