CLAUDE DEBUSSY MEETS EDGAR ALLAN POE: THE OPERA OF ‘THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER’

Of all the composers who have been inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the canon of classical music and opera, by far the most important is Claude Debussy (1862-1918), immortalised as the composer of works such as ‘La Mer’, ‘Clair de lune’ and ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ and of the opera ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. However, the French composer’s (unfinished) operatic adaptations of Poe remain a relatively little-known part of his opus.

Matters have now been improved by the recent release of the double CD ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas’ (Göttinger Symphony Orchestra/Christoph-Matias Mueller, Pan Classics PC10342, 2016) – see Andrew Clements, ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas – an unfinished double bill heard at last’, The Guardian, 8 June 2016 – https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/08/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-review-an-unfinished-double-bill-heard-at-last; and: http://www.mdt.co.uk/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-mueller-pan-classics-2cds.html.

Debussy Usher CD cover

Both operas were left unfinished by Debussy on his death. He worked on ‘Le diable dans le beffroi’ (based on Poe’s comic story ‘The Devil in the Belfry’) from 1902 to 1912, and on ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ (based on the far better-known ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’) from 1908 to 1917. For both, Debussy prepared his own libretto, taking as starting-point the celebrated translations into French of Charles Baudelaire (the booklet of the new release includes both librettos, in the original French and also in English and German translation). In the case of ‘Usher’, Debussy’s sketches amount to about half of the projected score. He intended to finish both projects, and his unrealised hope was that they would be premiered together as a double bill at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The two recordings that make up this release have necessarily been completed by hands other than Debussy’s. The first completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’, by Carolyn Abbate, was performed at Yale University in 1977. A second completion, by Juan Allende-Blin, received its premiere two years later in Berlin; a recording of that version was released by EMI in 1984, with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georges Prêtre. For the new release, the task has fallen, for both works, to the British ‘creative musicologist’ Robert Orledge, whose work thus marks the third completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ and the first-ever of ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’.

Of these two Poe/Debussy works, while ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’ is clearly of interest for students of the minor Poe tale it springs from, ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ is by far the more important, and the rest of this post will focus on that recording.

The opera as completed lasts 55 minutes. It is divided into a brief orchestral prelude and two acts. Act 1 begins with Madeline singing the first stanza of ‘The Haunted Palace’ offstage, and continues as Roderick’s friend enters and converses with the doctor (who plays a greater role than in the original). The rest is compressed into the second act.

There are various significant departures from the original. Roderick evokes his mother’s death and confesses he has tried in vain to escape the house. He imagines himself pursued by sinister black-winged birds that suggest Poe’s raven. None of this of course is in the original, and conversely there is no mention of Roderick’s painting activities, or of his music other than ‘The Haunted Palace’. Of his favourite books, only one (Pomponius Mela) is mentioned, though ‘The Mad Trist’ plays the same role as in the original, albeit with the protagonist renamed Sir Ulrich. In Act 2, the narrative shifts rapidly from Roderick’s first appearance and account of his malady, to Madeline’s interment, announced to the visitor by the doctor. The closing scene follows the original quite closely, from the storm through to the return of Madeline and the dénouement, with Roderick’s despairing words, ‘Insensé! Je vous dis qu’elle est maintenant derrière la porte!’ (‘Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!’) taken unaltered from Baudelaire.

Despite the departures, the opera as conceived by Debussy and completed by Orledge may be considered a musical and interpretive success. The music sounds like Debussy (indeed like ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’), and both vocals and orchestration manage to communicate the strangeness, suspense and drama of Poe’s famous tale. ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ may be enjoyed as a valuable reading of and commentary on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. On the operatic stage as on the pages of the book, Roderick Usher perishes – but once again, translated to another medium, Poe the protean genius lives!

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