‘Usher House’ Falls, But ‘Ghost’ Delights In Getty Opera Bill

Stunning projections like this cemetery scene were the highlights of LA Opera Off-Grand’s productions of two Gordon
Getty one-act operas, `Usher House’ and The Canterville Ghost’.
(Photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)

By Richard S. Ginell

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Gordon Getty might be the wealthiest classical composer in history this side of Felix Mendelssohn or Frederick the Great. The resulting celebrity guarantees him an audience, but respect has been harder to come by.

Sir Simon de Canterville (Matthew Burns) fulminates from within his ghostly room.

Nevertheless, Getty has persevered in his late-blooming career as a composer, writing three relatively short operas, several choral works and song cycles, and some orchestral, piano, and chamber pieces, many of which can be heard in SACD splendor on the PentaTone label. The recordings reveal a capable composer and a fairly reticent one – no grandiose shouting at the balcony for its own sake. Heir to an oil fortune, Getty has said that he is “two-thirds a 19th-century composer,” but what I hear is an unmistakable 20th-century man who has sidestepped the main trends of the era and prefers to write in a self-effacing, tonal, non-ear-threatening style. His closest musical soulmate, intended or not, is probably Benjamin Britten.

[CVNA’s donors include the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, which provides support primarily for symphony orchestras, opera companies, and educational institutions.]

Getty’s music has been recorded frequently by PentaTone.

Getty’s most recent one-act operas, Usher House and The Canterville Ghost, were meant to be paired together – and indeed they do offset each other well, with Usher being immersed in the murky morbid world of Edgar Allan Poe and Canterville a setting of a rollicking ghost story by Oscar Wilde. So on June 22, LA Opera Off Grand, the company’s ever-adventurous offsite offshoot, put both of them on the Broad Stage under the label “Scare Pair.” (The double bill was repeated on June 24.) The Broad, opened in 2008, is a 499-seat hall that serves Westside patrons who don’t want to fight soul-sucking traffic en route to downtown Los Angeles. It happens to be a decent home for chamber opera.

Liberally based upon Poe’s enigmatic Gothic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Usher House is a followup piece to Getty’s ballet Ancestor Suite, which was also inspired by the same Poe story. With the exception of the central ballet sequence, the opera’s musical language is very different from that of the suite; the opera is spare-textured, inward-looking, and almost all recitative, with plenty of room for the voices to be heard. Getty injects Poe in the flesh into the opera as the narrator and longtime friend of Roderick Usher (baritone Keith Phares), who calls Poe “Eddie.” Indeed, tenor Dominic Armstrong bore an amazing resemblance to Mr. Poe.

Dominic Armstrong, made up to resemble Edgar Allan Poe.

Yet nothing in Usher’s score is terribly inspired, and there is little dramatic tension in the buildup to the conclusion. What saved this production from the land of the doldrums were the stunning projections by David Murakami on a series of Gothic-shaped (naturally) arches onstage and a huge 20-by-24-foot video screen in back of the singers. They perfectly conjured the dank, claustrophobic atmosphere of the House of Usher’s library and observatory, and produced holographic-like images of Roderick’s ancestors dancing.

Poe and Roderick (Keith Phares) with the latter’s sister Madeline (Jamielyn Duggan).

In The Canterville Ghost, a wealthy American family circa 1890 buys an English manor whose resident ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville, tries and fails to put the willies in them. The work was unexpectedly delightful; Opera Leipzig’s recording doesn’t convey as much fun as this production did. Here, too, Getty put in something of his own: an opening scene set in 1960 in which the eighty-something couple Cecil Cheshire (Armstrong again) and Virginia Otis (soprano Summer Hassan) tell the great-grandchildren about what happened 70 years before, making the rest of the opera a flashback. The scoring is lighter in mood and thoroughly tonal, but not in a white-bread way, with flashes of humor that got the audience chuckling.

Virginia (Summer Hassan) is the only one who takes the ghost seriously.

Again, the giant video monitor contributed greatly to the piece’s appeal, with highly-colorful depictions of a cemetery, a park, the library of the manor, and the hologram-like room of the ghost. So did the lively acting, from Phares’ portrayal of the American capitalist Hiram Otis for whom consumer goods and litigation can solve any problem (Otis even proposes to charge the ghost rent on his property!) to the two bratty, ghost-busting twin “boys” – mezzo-sopranos Augusta Caso and Hilary Ginther – who torment Sir Simon. Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, who served as the dour Doctor Primus in Usher, turned on a dime to whoop it up in Canterville as Sir Simon in a manic mood and also conveyed the character’s later depression and loneliness.

The LA Opera Orchestra, led in both works by Sara Jobin, an experienced hand at contemporary opera, consisted of 36 musicians who fit comfortably in the Broad’s pit, with a space-saving MIDI controller keyboard adequately simulating a grand piano, harpsichord, and celesta. Bursts of amplified sound effects helped to relieve any tedium during the frequent breaks between Canterville’s 20 mostly short scenes. Canterville’s final scene, with the lovers Cecil and Virginia singing and the celesta playing the only memorable Getty tunes to be heard all night, was saved from sentimentality by Virginia’s refusal to admit that she had helped the ghost achieve his long-sought eternal rest.

The composer, now 84, was on hand to take a bow with the rest of the cast, playfully acting like one of his ghosts. Of course, neither he nor his two operas scared anyone.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.