>the fall of the house of usher by ballett nürnberg/oper nürnberg

>reviewed by ma shaoling

>date: 11 jun 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: esplanade theatre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe published 'The Fall of the House of Usher', which begins with a quote from De Béranger:

"Son Coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu'on le touche il resonne."
[His heart is a suspended lute;
as soon as one touches it, it resounds.]

More than a century later in 1988, Philip Glass composed for his orchestra a dramatic work haunted by this tale of incest, murder, lust and psychosis. Then Daniela Kurz, artistic director of Ballett Nürnberg heard the opera and decided that it was perfect for a dance. She is a contemporary choreographer, but in 2001, the gothic fiction was recast in its original fantasticality. Performed by 3 opera singers and an ensemble of 15 dancers, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER fulfills the artistic vision inherent in Poe's chosen quotation, for we see on stage a work that moves with a literature meant to be sung.

The performance opens with Roderick's soliloquy, spoken as he lies in a tomb-like enclosure. The house of Usher stands bleak and shrouded, and as Roderick's voice relates the background of his illness and hence the reason for inviting his friend, William, figures creep around to to Glass's stealthy score. Already before the first scene ends, one is immersed in the greyness between life and death. Designer Benita Roth creates a walled-in, somber interior of the house of Roderick Usher, where his phantasmagoric inner world is played out during William's visit. Like the audience, William is at once perplexed and helpless as he enters an abode where sanity and reason have no chance of triumph. THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, as a dark romantic dream narrative, begins with an implicit but imperative call to self-definition. The protagonist finds himself isolated in his own home, but his desperation to seek guidance and resolution ironically leads to the ultimate demise of his Self.

Both the human voice and human body language govern the flow and ebb of the 2-act narrative, while metaphors gave the tale its dark ambiguity. Roderick, played by experienced character tenor Eberhard Francesco Lorenz, struggles with a psychosis that is antagonistic to Madeline who is at once his dead (possibly murdered) sister and anima. The conflict heightens each time as strains of Madeline's femininity, ethereally rendered by Soprano Siphiwe McKenzie, reverberate with but also diverge from his.

>>'Poe's writing, Glass's music and Kurz's choreography all merge to be worthy of our contemplation, because they choose to dramatize problems more than solutions.'

Four groups of dancers differentiated by their costume variations, are interspersed with the singing narration to represent spectrums of Roderick's consciousness at different segments of the performance.

The corps de ballet in white and beige, suppliant and graceful in their neat couplings, stand for Roderick Usher as he is outwardly perceived. Torn between society's scrutiny - as characterised by the servant, physician, and friend - and Roderick's inner psychic forces striving for a constructive resolution, the dancers attempt to peel off their attire to unmask the protagonist's own sense of reality as he depicts it on his canvas. They are the moral "neuters", to borrow a literary term from Maurice Blanchot, who take the place of the subject, that is Roderick, and detach him from any relation to unity.

Dancers in gray and mauve constantly creep up the stage from beneath, as they embody the spirit of the Ushers imprisoned and isolated in their own manor. They execute fewer elevations and concentrate on positional shifting and ensemble movements.

Another group of dancers appears in dark red bodiced gowns, which epitomise the bloodied shadow of Madeline persisting in Roderick. In one significant scene, Roderick slips out of his loose, white shirt and pants into a similar gown, and joins the dancers in a cacophony of frenzied choreography and operatic crescendo. Any scene less sublimated would never achieve this level of psychological intensity. To remark that THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER manages to blend two art forms successfully, is akin to recognising that the boundaries separating them are sometimes unnecessary. After all, both ballet and opera were developed in Europe along similar strands of theatrical genesis that realized artistic expression at its most dramatic.

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER is not a one-dimensional or naïve work; it is by no means merely a dance opera about a mad man in a mad house. Poe's writing, Glass's music and Kurz's choreography all merge to be worthy of our contemplation, because they choose to dramatize problems more than solutions.

While those who do not take to Philip Glass's style finds the music a "repetitive drone" (see 'Usher-ing in a tumbledown' by Clara Chow in 'Life!', 'The Straits Times', June 13, 2003), I revel in the sensitivity of the score that detects the disquieting frequency of human psychology and relishes in its breakdowns. A different reading of Poe's works, that diverges from the traditional macabre and Gothicist view, should also take into account Poe as a satiric ironist of the ideal world of supreme Beauty, who undulates between the complexities of art and life, while at the same time distorting the characteristic features of an individual and his society in order to expose their absurdity. This brings me to the fourth group of dancers clad in skin-colour leotards - whose pas de deux reveals a serene intimacy between the Male and the Female figures that really effects enchantment rather than abhorrence. Although the character of Madeline - in particular her demise and her relation to Roderick - remains ambiguous throughout the performance (something Poe himself would have agreed with), the two dancers imply a unity of imaginative freedom and a quest for self-definition. On a mythic level, the pas de deux, either as a dream or an apparition, symbolises the reconciliation of the unconscious with the conscious parts of Roderick's personality, and challenges us to doubt whether his desire and attachment to Madeline, however unthinkable, is necessarily malevolent.

The metaphor of a ship's mast, which protrudes from beneath the house, exemplifies Roderick's futile attempt to escape from his inherited manor, his heritage, bloodline and unconscious. It is a doomed voyage, for by repressing his id impulses embodied in Madeline's shadow, the latter becomes a storm fatal to his ego.

As Roderick makes his descent with the falling mast, and the audience is finally faced with Madeline's manifestation, one is reminded of Goethe's Faust that closes with the following chorus:

"All in transition
Is but reflection;
What is deficient
Here becomes action;
Human discernment
Here is passed by;
Woman Eternal
Draw us on high."

And indeed, just at that instant, Roderick's figure suspended in mid-air makes his final resonance across the dark sky.