Opera Version of `Fall of the House of Usher' Makes for Dour Fun


THE festival called Serious Fun! takes the whimsical side of the avant-garde as its turf. Arriving at Lincoln Center for the third summer in a row, it has opened its 1989 season with a piece of dour fun indeed: an opera version of ``The Fall of the House of Usher,'' mixing the gloomy musings of Edgar Allan Poe - adapted by librettist Arthur Yorinks - with the pulsating rhythms of Philip Glass music and the dark pyrotechnics of director Richard Foreman, who staged the show. First presented last year by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., it's billed as ``the largest and most intricate work'' ever to grace the stage of Alice Tully Hall here. Visually, the opera has many of Mr. Foreman's characteristic touches. Bright lights glare at the audience. Mirrors twirl madly in their frames. The characters don't walk; they skulk. And this kind of thing suits the House of Usher right down to its rickety foundations.

Foreman has been honing his hallucinatory style for years - not only in plays, video, and film, but in such operas as ``Madame Adare'' and the astonishing ``Elephant Steps,'' which ``Usher'' recalls at times. He's the ideal director to bring alive (if that's the right word) the melancholy madness of Poe's most famous mansion, where an ordinary man becomes the house guest of a morbidly inclined recluse who's afraid that his sister's death and burial might not have occured in the customary order.

Mr. Glass's music is also in tune with this material. His shorter works - from ``The Panther'' years ago to ``The Juniper Tree'' and ``1000 Airplanes on the Roof'' more recently - have often tended toward bizarre subjects, and since his seminal ``Einstein on the Beach'' he has enjoyed matching his deliberately repetitive riffs and rhythms to similarly unconventional imagery.

His score for ``The Fall of the House of Usher'' integrates energetic woodwinds (always a staple of his own ensemble) with a small number of strings, one French horn, an electric guitar, a synthesizer, and percussion. Scales, arpeggios, and staccato bursts of identical pitches give the music a typical Glass sound, spiced with peppery discords in the second act. It doesn't turn any new corners for Glass, but it nicely suits the mood of Poe's tale and Foreman's treatment thereof.

The cast at Lincoln Center featured baritone Steven Paul Aiken, tenor Dwayne Croft, and soprano Suzan Hanson, all of whom tackled their spooky roles with clarity and conviction on opening night, despite the unusual demands of Foreman's deliberately bizarre staging.

Ditto for bass Pawel Izdebski and tenor Carl Hieger in less prominent roles. Richard Pittman was the able conductor, and Nancy Winters collaborated with Foreman on the flamboyantly Foremanesque set design.

``Serious Fun!'' continues through Aug. 2 with an impressive collection of experimentally inclined talents. They include monologists Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, dancers Molissa Fenley and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company, musicians Scott Johnson and Anthony Davis, and others. Add some ``visual exhibitions'' in the lobby and you have a commendably varied series for the potentially dull warm-weather season.

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