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COT’s ‘House of Usher’ blends Glass, Poe

Lee Gregory Ryan MacPhersSuzan Hansstar “The Fall House Usher” Chicago OperTheater | Phoby Keith Ian Polakoff ~ Courtesy Long Beach

Lee Gregory Ryan MacPherson and Suzan Hanson star in “The Fall of the House of Usher” at Chicago Opera Theater | Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff ~ Courtesy of Long Beach Opera

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Theater — ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

♦ 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23; 3 p.m. Feb. 24; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 1

♦ Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

♦ Tickets, $45-$125

♦ (312) 704-8414;

Updated: February 20, 2013 4:36PM

To co-exist, let alone prosper in the same city with the world-class Lyric Opera of Chicago, a company has little choice but to carve out a very different identity.

That’s what the 39-year-old Chicago Opera Theater has done, putting an emphasis on the kind of offbeat, often contemporary repertory rarely seen on the Lyric’s stage.

The latest case is the company’s presentation of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which opens Feb. 23 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

The little-known 1987 psycho-drama brings together two celebrated creators of past and present: writer Edgar Allan Poe and composer Philip Glass — a combination that general director Andreas Mitisek is confident will hold considerable audience appeal.

“Edgar Allan Poe has these enigmatic stories with many different entry ways,” he said. “Philip Glass’ music fits so well, because you have to suspend time and space and just dive in and it kind of floats with the story and really brings out the undercurrents.”

Although critics remain divided over the minimalist composer’s operas, it is impossible to deny his inventiveness or the breadth of his output — more than two dozen works since the 1970s, including one that debuted in Madrid earlier this month.

“House of Usher” is a co-production with the Long Beach (Calif.) Opera, where Mitisek also serves as general director. Not only did the two companies split the costs of the sets and costumes, they were also able to save money by sharing an identical cast and holding just one main set of rehearsals before the two almost back-to-back series of performances in the two cities.”

Mitisek will conduct the two-act, 90-minute work, which he said fits into a group of Glass’ smaller-scale, more narrative operas, such as “In the Penal Colony” (2000) and “The Trial,” which is expected to debut in Wales in 2014.

“Some of his works,” he said, “like ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ the famous one that is non-narrative basically, or ‘Akhnaten’ or ‘Satyagraha,’ those are more philosophical statements. But this is a real story-driven opera, so it’s theatrically very forward-moving compared to these other ones.”

Librettist Arthur Yorinks’ adaptation sticks loosely to Poe’s famed tale in which William (baritone Lee Gregory) receives a letter from his long-lost friend, Roderick Usher (tenor Ryan MacPherson), bidding him to visit. William’s journey to the forbidding House of Usher plunges him into a sinister world where the real and supernatural blur.

Interspersed with the narrative portions of the opera are extensive orchestral interludes, which stage director Ken Cazan saw as “dramatic voids.” To try to fill out the story, he infused these sections with action, including the addition of eight supernumeraries (non-speaking actors) who serve as kind of living extensions of the menacing house.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the director’s contemporary staging is his treatment of the opera as a gay love story — a move that he said came as a “gut reaction” to reading the libretto and listening to the music.

In line with that approach, the director envisioned Madeline Usher (soprano Suzan Hanson), Roderick’s twin sister, as the embodiment of the central character’s repressed sexuality.

“During the rehearsal process,” Cazan said, “it turned out that she was everything that the family and the house had suppressed and oppressed for years. And it finally comes exploding out and the minute he (Roderick) admits who he is and what he is, it kills him and that’s how the thing ends, which confused a lot of people, but that is what I think the story of ‘House of Usher’ is about.”

Cazan acknowledged that his interpretation generated considerable controversy in Long Beach among both audiences and critics.

“You just take risks when you do anything theatrically,” he said, “and this one particularly was a big risk, but it was a risk that I thought had to be taken.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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