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L.A. Opera's 'Scare Pair' at the Broad Stage

L.A. Opera's 'Scare Pair' at the Broad Stage
Dominic Armstrong as Edgar Allen Poe (foreground) with Jamielyn Duggan as Madeline Usher and Keith Phares as Roderick Usher in a scene from LA Opera's "Usher House." (Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Having reached the ripe age of 84, composer-philanthropist Gordon Getty can look back upon a fairly sizable body of work, mostly for the voice, that he has written over the last three decades.

His music gets a mixed bag of reviews which — good, bad and indifferent — are unflinchingly documented on his website. Yet the PentaTone label diligently records much of his output, and his music does get live performances — if more in his home base, the Bay Area, than in Southern California.

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To round out its 2017-18 season, Los Angeles Opera Off-Grand took a chance on two recent Getty works, a pair of hourlong one-act operas. Composed of “Usher House” and “The Canterville Ghost” — which are based upon tales by Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, respectively — the double-header was marketed as the “Scare Pair,” though neither piece would scare a fly. Rather than schedule the pieces around Halloween — which might have seemed more opportune — LA Opera Off-Grand parked them at the Broad Stage Friday night and Sunday afternoon (I caught Friday’s performance).

The two operas do make a logical twin-bill — the spooky, enigmatic “Usher” followed by the comic relief of “Canterville” — much like LA Opera’s pairing of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” back in the Kent Nagano era (2002). Of the two, though, only “Canterville” strikes me as something that might catch on, and the lively cast and staging had a lot to do with that.

In “Usher House,” Getty inserted Poe himself into the opera as the narrator who visits his old “friend” Roderick Usher, the inhabitant of the doomed house. Much of the opera is an overly talky back-and-forth between Poe and Roderick, with a gracefully written instrumental ballet sequence in its center featuring Roderick’s writhing, contorting, terminally ill twin sister Madeline and some onscreen ghostly ancestors.

Getty’s score is spare, inward-looking, unapologetically tonal, channeling Benjamin Britten in mood and texture if not actual style, and consisting of mostly unmemorable recitative with little connection between the orchestra and the singing line. Poe’s murky tale doesn’t seem to inspire the best in composers — Debussy couldn’t finish his own version and Philip Glass’ take on “Usher” consists of mainly routine minor-key underscoring — so Getty is not alone in being unable to come up with a compelling piece of music theater.

Ultimately, Dave Dunning’s scenery designs and David Murakami’s elaborate projections scored the main points in “Usher’s” favor. Through direct projections on Gothic-shaped (of course) arches onstage and others from a giant 20 foot-by-24-foot video monitor in the back of the stage, they provided stunning simulations of the dark, gloomy Usher library and observatory, as well as a ballroom in which hologram-like images of ghosts danced

Cast photo in L.A. Opera's "The Canterville Ghost" at the Broad Stage.
Cast photo in L.A. Opera's "The Canterville Ghost" at the Broad Stage. (Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

“The Canterville Ghost” came off as the more engaging piece, with 20 mostly brief scenes tracing Wilde’s storyline about a rich American family circa 1890 that buys an English mansion with its own resident ghost. There is satire about how Americans rely upon consumer products and litigation to solve their problems, and the ghost (Sir Simon de Canterville) can’t scare the bejeebers out of any of these Yankees, least of all a pair of twin boys who torment the poor fella.

The scoring is lighter in weight than in “Usher,” still mostly recitative, but now with flashes of humor like the interpolations of “Yankee Doodle” and “Rule Britannia.” And in the final scene, for the first time all night, Getty hits upon a couple of attractive melodic ideas for the audience to take home from the theater.

The video screen displayed a riot of bright, vibrant color in the cemetery, as well as in the scenes of croquet in the park — and a library of amplified sound effects during scene changes mostly added to the hilarity.

Sara Jobin — whom we will see again next March when she debuts on Disney Hall’s Green Umbrella series in Bryce Dessner’s new Mapplethorpe piece — ably led a 36-piece ensemble from the LA Opera Orchestra. Displaying a strong tenor, Dominic Armstrong looked uncannily like Poe in “Usher” and doubled as romantic lead Cecil Cheshire in “Canterville.” Keith Phares made a powerful Roderick in “Usher” and a cocksure Hiram Otis in “Canterville.” Summer Hassan shifted easily between pathos and comic rage as Virginia in “Canterville” and provided the off-stage voice of Madeline in “Usher” (dancer Jamielyn Duggan portrayed Madeline onstage).

Bass-baritone Matthew Burns displayed the widest acting range — a dour Doctor Primus in “Usher” and a hammy Sir Simon in “Canterville.” And there were plenty of hi-jinks from the bratty “boys” — sung by Augusta Caso and Hilary Ginther — who gave the Canterville ghost such a bad time. Altogether, LA Opera Off-Grand’s cast made a much better case for Getty’s ghost comedy than the PentaTone recording.

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