Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” cries out for music. It is a virtuoso exercise in setting and sustaining a tremulous mood, full of references to music and sound, with little plot and sparse dialogue. Its central character is a neurasthenic who loves to strum a guitar and improvise ballads but is hypersensitive to noise. Composers have responded, among them Debussy, who struggled to make an opera of the tale, and Gordon Getty, who has produced a pleasing drama reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s musical prosody.
And so too Philip Glass, who composed his own “Fall of the House of Usher” in 1987. On Saturday evening, Halcyon Stage and the Wolf Trap Opera staged the work at Union Market, in a warehouse space dubbed Dock 5. Septime Webre, formerly head of the Washington Ballet and now artistic director of Halcyon, directed the performance, introducing choreography throughout for a dynamic, visually restless show that was stylish and sexy and sometimes just a bit relentless.
Poe’s story is an intimate and indoors tale, with the house itself a seemingly malevolent character. The “physique of the grey walls and turrets,” Poe says, exerts a baleful influence on the morale of Roderick Usher, who lives there confined with his twin sister, both of them suffering from dreadful physical and mental distress.
“Usher” is one of Glass’s more dramatically taut operas, and Webre’s choreographic approach added activity and speed to the drama. He used dancers to represent the house itself, recalling Cocteau’s film “La Belle et la Bête,” which inspired another work from Glass, a curious 1994 fusion of film and opera.
Dancers with dark rings of makeup around their eyes also enacted the implied erotic and emotional tension between the three central figures, the narrator (dubbed William in the opera), Roderick (sung by Jonas Hacker), and his sister Madeline (sung by Madison Leonard), who floats haunting, wordless vocals over and around the two young men.
But Webre also used dancers to fill in the musical spaces, the orchestral interludes, transitions and more than occasional longueurs. At times, they were busy not with elaborating subtext — hints of homoeroticism and incest — but merely illustrating the main drama, sometimes getting in the way of narrative clarity and upstaging the singers. A pivotal scene between Roderick and William, in which they paint and make music and enjoy a rare respite from fear, was undermined by the choreography, leaving one wondering why poor Roderick, who has retreated from the world, lives in a house bursting with so many irrepressibly athletic goth kids.
Fix that little bit of too-muchness, and scrap or replace the balky amplification (which made it almost impossible to understand or appreciate the vocal contributions of baritone Ben Edquist, who sang William), and this production would be entirely memorable. Hacker, who has distinguished himself in supporting roles with the Washington Concert Opera, was given a star turn, and he produced a character convincingly racked by anxiety and anguish. He also delivered the most satisfying vocal moments of the evening, especially when singing in full voice with only minimal electronic sound enhancement. Amplification is a necessary evil in some settings, and Glass often uses it to boost the impact of small ensembles such as the one that accompanies “Usher,” but it is evil nonetheless and should be used with the lightest of touches.
Joseph Li conducted the Inscape Chamber Orchestra, which was also grossly overamplified, sometimes drowning out the singers, but the musicians performed smoothly and with impressive command of Glass’s iterative idiom. Donna Breslin’s costumes helped make sense of the dancer-singer doublings, connecting characters by the cut and color of their coats and tunics. The CityDance Conservatory Dancers were indefatigable, expressive and versatile, serving multiple roles and dramatic purposes, asserting themselves as agents of the drama without distracting (or colliding with) the singers.