The Center for Contemporary Opera Presents Gordon Getty’s “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost in Review
The Center for Contemporary Opera Orchestra, Sara Jobin, conductor
Gordon Getty, composer
The Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, New York, NY
October 19, 2017 at 7:30pm
It is something of a rarity to have two operas performed in a single evening, but on October 19, 2017, The Center for Contemporary Opera presented what was billed as a “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost, by American composer Gordon Getty. Each single-act opera is approximately sixty-minutes in duration. There was a pre-concert interview with Mr. Getty to learn more about these works. The program contained a synopsis of each work, and it was a nice touch to have the names of the orchestra members listed in the program along with the members of the creative and production team.
Gordon Getty is well-known for his patronage of the arts, but he considers composing his true passion. The now 83-year-old composer is the subject of a PBS documentary, Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music. His style is strictly tonal, often to the point of being monochromatic. Quoting Mr. Getty, “My style is undoubtedly tonal, though with hints of atonality, such as any composer would likely use to suggest a degree of disorientation. But I’m strictly tonal in my approach. I represent a viewpoint that stands somewhat apart from the twentieth century, which was in large measure a repudiation of the nineteenth and a sock in the nose to sentimentality. Whatever it was that the great Victorian composers and poets were trying to achieve, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.”
Mr. Getty has the integrity to post on his website all available reviews (www.gordongetty.com), many of which are very harsh. For this decision he has my respect, especially in a world where artists share only praise.
This is not this reviewer’s first experience with the music of Mr. Getty, as he previously reviewed “The White Election,” a song cycle of Emily Dickinson poems (The White Election in Review April 19. 2012). I was especially curious to hear how Mr. Getty handled larger works.
Usher House is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. In the words of Mr. Getty on the subject of the libretto he wrote, “I found myself taking liberties.” Poe himself is inserted as the narrator. Roderick and Madeline are re-cast much more sympathetically than in Poe’s actual tale, while introducing/inventing a character named Dr. Primus as the villain. Mr. Getty’s libretto would have benefitted from editing by an experienced librettist, as his version lacks clarity and there is far too much superfluous dialogue. Dr. Primus seems like an evil version of Sarastro, but his motivations other than just being evil were never made clear. In addition, calling Poe “Eddie” was bizarre to my ears.
The set was a series of projections on the stage, which was very good in creating the gloomy atmosphere of the Usher House, along with some “guest appearances” of ancestors, who may or may not have been apparitions depending on one’s viewpoint. Perhaps these projections were designed for a larger stage, as they were often out of proportion to the surroundings, especially the ancestors, who dwarfed the “living” persons on stage. There were supertitles projected above stage, which were helpful, without being entirely necessary, given the excellent diction of the performers.
Almost all the vocal writing in Usher House is recitativo, so much so that it wears thin on this listener. One can almost predict how the lines will be sung because of the repetitiveness of style, overly laden with fourths and fifths. The one actual aria, the lovely “Where is My Lady” as sung by Poe is proof that Mr. Getty can write effectively, making it all the more frustrating that there is not more. The orchestrations are sparse and rely heavily on creating effects (some bordering on stereotypical kitsch) instead of propelling the story or providing melodic material. It all meanders about, with the final destruction of Usher House rendered with a whimper instead of a bang.
All praise goes to the cast, who gave this material their full commitment. Dominic Armstrong as Edgar Allan Poe proved his vocal talents despite little material to work with. Keith Phares played Roderick Usher sympathetically, Matthew Burns was appropriately sinister as Dr. Primus, and Jamielyn Duggan’s macabre dance as Madeline might have been the highlight of this performance for the audience, who applauded respectfully.
After intermission, the hardworking cast members were back for American premiere of The Canterville Ghost. Based on Oscar Wilde’s 1887 story of the same name, the tale centers around the ghost Sir Simon de Canterville, and the Otises, an American family who purchased the property known as the Canterville Chase. For hundreds of years, Sir Simon has been terrorizing residents of the Chase, but the Otis family proves less than intimidated by his presence. Sir Simon is continually humiliated by the members of the family, save for daughter Virginia, the one member of the family sympathetic to Sir Simon.
As with Usher House, The Canterville Ghost relies heavily on recitative. There is a need for “smoothing” the libretto, as many scenes end abruptly, with awkward silences filling the air as the next scene is being set. Projections were used as well as fixed sets. There must have been limited rehearsal time, as the performers often were standing in the middle of projected images.
At the risk of repeating myself, the overuse of recitative, the skeletal orchestration, and the hackneyed musical elements are every bit as present in Canterville as in Usher House. Where The Canterville Ghost succeeds is in its fidelity to Oscar Wilde’s brilliant wit – the music is completely incidental. In spite of this, The Canterville Ghost is a delightful romp. Kudos to the cast, with special mentions to soprano Summer Hassan, who as Virginia wowed with her soaring voice in “Stay With Me Beautiful,” and to Matthew Burns as Sir Simon, whose comedic gifts stole the show.
The audience gave the cast a standing ovation, and when the affable Mr. Getty joined all on stage there were shouts of “bravo!” that filled the hall.