Marcel Sokalski as William and Joseph Tancredi as Roderick Usher in the Opera Maine Studio Artists production of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Photo by Martha Mickles

A sizable crowd risked a fearful journey through the imagination of Edgar Allen Poe on Wednesday night as they came out to attend a performance of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a chamber opera by Philip Glass, performed at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.

Presented by Opera Maine’s Studio Artists program for young professionals, the 1988 work attempts to musically update, with a libretto by Arthur Yorinks, the mystery and menace found in the prose of Poe’s Gothic short story of the same title about a historic family in horrific decline.

The 1839 story has been subject to many interpretations over the years and Glass, Yorinks and, in turn, Opera Maine director Richard Gammon have chosen to develop more overtly some avenues of understanding that were only hinted at in the great author’s original work. Let’s say, some desires are made a little less ambiguous.

As the basic story goes, a man named William is summoned by his old friend Roderick Usher, a recluse who appears to be in physical and mental distress, to a decaying mansion where Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline, reside. Madeline, also seemingly suffering from an undiagnosed illness, appears to pass away and the two men bury her with solemnity. But Madeline’s not quite done yet and returns for a spooky finale.

Though brief moments of a gentler lyricism flash by, the mostly stress-infused vocal performances were uniformly compelling on opening night (the first of only two performances). Baritone Marcel Sokalski is a quizzical and confused William who eventually discovers his own intentions to be doubly complicated. Tenor Joseph Tancredi is a hard-drinking, gloom-laden Roderick who’s lost in contemplation of the dire state of the Usher lineage and his own identity. Soprano Gabrielle Clutter is a dangerously alluring Madeline. Her wordless vocals haunt the men on the minimal set that very significantly features a bed.

The endlessly pulsing, slow developing music of Glass sets an ominous mood that only intensifies as dark, portentous motives emerge from the 12-member orchestra, directed by Jackson McKinnon, that is seated below the lip of the stage. Though some seem to remain forever immune to its charms, the instrumental music of Glass here enhances the onstage action immensely and is an all-too-rare treat to hear in Maine.


Though sung in English, the production features supertitles as well as stylized video and still images of the performers, designed by SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal, in various exterior, tree-lined locations.

Miguel Pedroza and Joseph Sacchi took minor roles, with Sacchi briefly unleashing a really big voice.

Poe purists may quibble. But this Opera Maine production still gets at the author’s way of providing a sort of transfixing discomfort. Match that with an opportunity to hear well-played and well-sung live music by Philip Glass, and you’ve got the makings of an engrossing 90 minutes at the opera.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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