Essential Halloween Viewing: Philip Glass’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ Gets a Haunting Cinematic Treatment

With its horrifying themes of isolation, sickness, madness and decay, perhaps few stories more relevantly speak to the conditions imposed by this long, interminable coronavirus crisis as does Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Philip Glass had quite successfully turned the story into an equivocal opera in 1987, which has since then been performed in cities from Helsinki to Florence, Chicago to Warsaw and beyond. It was supposed to open in Boston in early 2020.

Of course, these very pandemic conditions have meant that many theaters yet remain dark. But the crisis inspired a particular burst of creativity at the Boston Lyric Opera, which led to them producing a hauntingly beautiful film version of Usher, which was first released digitally this past January via Operabox.tv. But with Halloween just a couple of weeks away, it’s once again become absolutely essential viewing.

While Poe’s tale was of a rather terrifying gothic mansion in what was assumed to be the deep English countryside, here Spanish screenwriter Raúl Santos moves it quite relevantly to America’s southern border. Luna, a detained young immigrant girl, conjures the tragic twins of the original story as figments of her imagination – so the narrative essentially takes place in her head, where the doomed brother and sister reside in an imaginary dollhouse.

“We’ve created a context for the story that feels worthy of being out in the world right now,” explains director James Darrah. “Usher touches on issues we still grapple with today – family heritage and lineage, hidden desires, mental health, and illness. I think this unique format further enhances the intention of the opera and brings a 100-year-old story into the present day.”

The sense of the new version of the story being a sort of catharsis of Luna’s inner life is further emphasized via a series of drawings she undertakes, so that the viewer may actually perceive something about her psychological condition. The use of stop motion animation also imbues the “action” with a particularly preternatural, almost dreamlike quality.

That the extended worldwide quarantines had forced so many to travel deeper inwardly over the last year-and-a-half, veritably ensures that the BLO update of The Fall of the House of Usher carries with it a weighty poignance. And that our current President is still grappling with (and failing to resolve) the tragic immigration situation at the border makes it all the more affecting.

But it is also encouraging that art continues to find ways to rise above the consequences of such a terrible, universal tragedy that we are yet still living through.

“This pandemic has demonstrated how inventive artists respond with ingenuity to a crisis,” observes Boston Lyric Opera Artistic Director Esther Nelson. “Our creative team embraced the idea and design for a film version [very early on], demonstrating how inventive artists respond with ingenuity to a crisis. BLO has always prioritized the creation of new work and new productions through a robust commissioning program; this groundbreaking production opens an exciting new door for that work.”

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