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Chicago Opera Theater’s ‘Usher’ launches an exciting new era

Lee Gregory (from left) Ryan MacPhersSuzan HansChicago OperTheater productiPhilip Glass' 'The Fall House Usher' based Edgar Allan Poe story.

Lee Gregory (from left), Ryan MacPherson and Suzan Hanson in the Chicago Opera Theater production of Philip Glass' "The Fall of the House of Usher," based on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

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♦ Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris, 230 E. Randolph

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Updated: February 25, 2013 1:25PM

In 2000, Brian Dickie launched a new era for Chicago Opera Theater with a production of Monteverdi’s 1607 “Orfeo,” putting a British Mozart specialist in the orchestra pit and a new-to-the-genre downtown New York theater director handling the interpretation.

Saturday night, it was Andreas Mitisek’s turn to share his vision with something unusual, the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass’ 1987 take on the Edgar Allan Poe tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Mitisek, COT’s new general diretor, himself led the 13-member chamber ensemble of local musicians; Ken Cazan, who had also worked with Dickie, set the dark interpretation and strange story on the stage.

The commitment to quality by the two leaders, though, was the same. And while no one will claim that Glass, at least in this relatively modest but lyrical and sometimes even surprising score, is a match for Monteverdi, the idea of serving composer and drama with strong singing design and focus was all there.

Dickie had to wait three years to move his brand of excitement and rediscovery from a quaint former Catholic school auditorium in Lake View to the then-new Harris Theater in Millennium Park. Mitisek starts with the technical and acoustic advantages of the downtown venue and brings additional cost savings, too: He also heads Long Beach Opera in Southern California, and productions and casts can be shared between the two comparable and flexible companies.

Until Mitisek is more established in Chicago, that sharing is from west to east; the operatic jack of all trades — manager, conductor, director, designer, marketer, and sometimes all five — was able to bring COT the Long Beach production of “Usher,” which had its debut in San Pedro, Calif., less than a month ago.

It was a good and daring choice. The Glass name and the looping, minimal and intentionally repetitive sounds it conjures up have both built-in attraction for some and are a hard sell for others. But this 80-minute chamber piece is a tightly focused explication of the Poe story of a young man who finds himself compelled to answer a cry for help by a wealthy, brilliant and disturbed childhood friend who is the last of his line.

Poe’s story never makes clear why the man does so, coming close to sacrificing his life, and librettist Arthur Yorinks leaves the question open. Cazan answers it, in your face but reasonably: The visitor William and the heir Roderick Usher have a sexual and emotional attraction. The possibly imaginary Madeline Usher, whether Roderick’s twin or hallucination, expresses the drug-added artist’s very mixed and complex longings.

The three lead singers, all new to Chicago, are well cast vocally and physically. Baritone Lee Gregory conveys William’s own combination of innocence and desire with a compelling voice and stage presence. Ryan MacPherson grabs Roderick’s multifaceted personality and has a tenor both strong and seductive enough to ride the score’s high passage work. Soprano Suzan Hanson, who created the role of Madeline a quarter century ago, makes the sounds and movements of her wordless part both frightening and compelling.

Tenor Jonathan Mack as the dour Dr. Feelgood and bass-baritone Nick Shelton as the Usher family servant round out the cast. The eight silent goth young men who both move Alan E. Muraoka’s imaginatively designed modular set pieces around and menace William seem hokey at first and too literally connected to the “gothic” story, but they grow on you. David Martin Jacques’ lighting and Jacqueline Saint Anne’s costumes move easily across time and from fantasy and reality and back.

Greeting the audience Mitisek, in crutches and a plastic splint (a recent slip on the ice by the California arrival) added a twist to the “break a leg” wish for theater success. He brought out the subtleties in Glass’ music, including his use of guitar (Steve Roberts), Poe’s choice for Roderick’s own instrument. He’s off to a personal, provocative start.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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