This weekend, Santa Monica’s Broad Stage held two performances of L.A. Opera's double bill of works by composer Gordon Getty. The two pieces were based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (first performed by Welsh National Opera in 2014) and on Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost (first performed by Leipzig Opera in 2015). The show, which featured Getty’s adapted librettos, was called Scare Pair, and it successfully achieved a unique fusion of classic spooky stories and opera. The double bill was offered twice; Friday night, June 22, and Sunday, June 24, for a matinee performance.
At the Friday evening performance of Scare Pair, a predominantly senior crowd mostly filled the 538-seat auditorium. The production featured Dave Dunning's scenery, most of which was projected onto curtains and various set pieces, combined with creative lighting by Nicole Pearce, which enabled cast members to interact with the designs; these visuals effectively created an eerie and satisfying atmosphere, further brought to life by great costuming by Callie Floor.
The show began with the Poe adaptation titled Usher House. The libretto made several departures from Poe’s classic tale. Principally, these included having Poe as a character in the story (in the place of the unnamed narrator from the original); the addition of a mad scientist/doctor, Dr. Primus; and a romantic history between Poe and Madeline Usher (Jamielyn Duggan).
The performance, which was in English, featured projected subtitles over the stage; these helped one’s understanding of the libretto quite a bit due to the complexity of the archaic verbiage throughout Usher House. Poe was played by Dominic Armstrong, whose powerful tenor voice provided the centerpiece to the entire program’s love songs. In Usher House, the principal number was in the form of an old poem that symbolized the bond between Poe and Madeline. The score was alternately whimsically lighthearted and suitably threatening. Such dynamism conveyed the natures of both light opera and stories of gloom and doom.
The inherent challenge of Usher House is that Poe’s tale does not have a lot of action. Thus, several sequences were added to the story, including a ball of spectral attendees (the Ushers of generations past) and a visit to the house’s astronomy room, wherein Dr. Primus explains the connection between the cosmos, life and death, and the arcane scientific knowledge held by the Usher family. These sequences were successful at conjuring a strong mood, and the sparing use of the Madeline character (who elicited the passion of the Poe character) was successful at generating the sense of mystery.
While Usher House succeeded in its ambiance, the dialogue was excessively expository, and this revealed the limits to attempting to adapt Poe’s words to opera. Furthermore, although the score was very good in the hands of conductor Sara Jobin, the opera might have benefited from more individual songs to punctuate the piece as a whole.
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The second opera, The Canterville Ghost, was a great complement to Usher House. While Usher House was successful at maintaining an unsettling tone throughout, The Canterville Ghost took the theme of haunting to the light side. Wilde’s tale features an ages-old ghost named Sir Simon, who meets his match in an obnoxious American family, which seems immune to his attempts at scaring them or causing them harm.
Matthew Burns delightfully brought Sir Simon’s existential dilemma to life (he also did a fine job portraying the creepy Dr. Primus in Usher House). Keith Phares (who played Roderick Usher, Madeline’s twin brother) ably shared the comedic duties as Hiram Otis (the head of the American family). Summer Hassan was very good in the role of Virginia, who ultimately brings peace to the restless Sir Simon.
The Canterville Ghost made for an enjoyable short opera (the entire running time of Scare Pair was about 2 hours and 20 minutes). Like Usher House, this piece was punctuated with a single love song. This one was performed by Armstrong (who played Virginia’s earthly beau, Cecil Cheshire) and Hassan.
Adaptations of literary works into theatrical productions are always a challenge. In this case, the challenge of adapting Poe to opera yielded an appropriately atmospheric show with some chilling and enthralling moments, but it never quite broke free of its literary roots. Perhaps this was done intentionally so as to show reverence for Poe’s writing. In any case, Wilde’s comedy provided a more relaxed piece that did not challenge the linguistic capacity of its audience. Collectively, L.A. Opera’s Off Grand presentation of Scare Pair, under the direction of Brian Staufenbiel, was an entertaining hybrid of spooky stories and opera, providing fans of scary stories with an eloquent theatrical experience and fans of opera with a particularly colorful program.