Though it may seem counterintuitive that a hoary American short story should provide the basis for an innovative new opera production, that is the case with San Francisco Opera’s U.S. premiere of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
The work, actually a double bill of Gordon Getty’s “Usher House” and Debussy’s “La Chute de La Maison Usher,” is loosely based on the 1839 Gothic short story by Edgar Allan Poe, and the two one-act pieces — Robert Orledge completed the opera Debussy left unfinished — are among various interpretations of the story.
Director David Pountney’s SFO co-production with the Welsh Opera unveiled on Tuesday in the Opera House neatly stitches together the two somewhat distinct takes on the macabre tale, employing Niki Turner’s effective stage production and designer David Haneke’s captivating video projections.
The gripping, almost supernatural staging — not the less-than-pulsating music that is largely unvaried sung dialogue — stands out as the crowd pleaser here.
“Usher House” opens with an iconic reminder of the story’s author: A video-projected raven looms overhead and caws menacingly across the stage. Thereafter, the video projects a series of ornately wood-paneled chambers of the ill-fated grand household, as well as portraits that come to life in an eye-catching Disney Haunted Mansion-like way.
Baritone Brian Mulligan, who earlier this season played the lead cutthroat barber in the musical thriller “Sweeney Todd,” is just as commanding and clear-voiced here, but in the more sympathetic role of Roderick Usher, the last surviving male member of his once-vibrant family.
Tenor Jason Bridges makes his SFO debut as Edgar Allan Poe, looking every bit the part of the great author, and resonating nicely with self-assurance and a bright voice. Although Poe is not a character in the original story, he appears in the opera, serving as a supportive figure who fulfills Roderick’s need for friendship during his sister Madeline’s seemingly fatal illness.
In “Usher House,” Madeline (a stylish, evocative Jamielyn Duggan) dances quite a bit, but barely speaks (Jacqueline Piccolino, in the same role). But Doctor Primus, sung by powerful bass Anthony Reed, very much makes his presence known as Madeline’s eerily fateful caregiver.
A deluge of rain breaks the action before the production resumes in “La Chute de La Maison Usher,” and the rainfall returns at the bloody conclusion of the Debussy/Orledge work, which has a more minimalist projection design (though equally creepy) than the Getty “Usher.”
The able Mulligan again is Roderick, and he is joined by the fine tenor Joel Sorensen as Le Médecin, baritone Edward Nelson as L’Ami and sweet-voiced soprano Jacqueline Piccolino as Lady Madeline.
Conductor Lawrence Foster’s steady baton guided the SFO Orchestra through all of its otherworldly movements.
Usher House, La Chute de La Maison Usher
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10-11, 2 p.m. Dec. 13
Tickets: $78 to $381
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com