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Review Thu Feb 28 2013

Erotic & Operatic: The Fall of the House of Usher

Usher.JPG

It seems that opera has always stood on ceremony. Chicago Opera Theater's performance of Philip Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher left me wondering why. This opera -- one of such macabre and erotic beauty -- had its audience in a riotous and soulful frenzy.

Every heart in the audience felt that frenzy after the first baritone notes rang out through the piercing silence of the theater. We met William (Lee Gregory), a modern man bathed in a square of nearly blinding white light, characteristic of the lighting design of the opera as a whole -- reminiscent of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, the dramatic, high-contrast style made famous in paintings of old.

This modern man receives a message from his childhood friend, Roderick Usher (Ryan MacPherson), the namesake of the 1839 Edgar Allan Poe story on which the opera is based. Roderick has become ill with a madness imparted by the very house he lives in and the death of his twin sister Madeline (Suzan Hanson), and he begs William to save him from his insanity.

Personified by a group of black and red-clad supernumeraries, the dark spirit of the House of Usher begins to follow William even as he sets out on his journey. This spirit continues to consume him throughout the 80-minute opera, until he can stand it no longer, and it swallows him whole.

Once he arrives at the house, composed of grey, monolithic, imposing blocks of stone, the audience begins to understand the taboo undertones of William and Roderick's childhood friendship. The orchestra's notes and actor's voices, especially Madeline's forceful, wild and penetrating soprano, carry the audience through a tale of incest, homosexuality, murder and the supernatural, and bring to light issues so deep that the opera becomes an experience that lasts much longer than 80 minutes, while the mystery's pieces continue to fall into place in the audience's minds.

The last performance of Chicago Opera Theater's The Fall of the House of Usher is on Friday, Mar. 1, at 7:30pm at The Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. Tickets range from $35 to $125, with special pricing for students, and there isn't a bad seat in the house. The opera contains sexual content and makes use of strobe light -- things to consider before attending the performance.

 
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