The Musical Voyages of Edgar Allan Poe

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Hearing Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann sail admirably through Don Carlos’s bromance of a duet, “Dio, che nel alma infondere,” at Sunday night’s Richard Tucker gala, I was reminded of how delightfully macabre Verdi’s Inquisition epic truly is.

In the monastery of Yuste, King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor interrupt Carlo’s final farewell to his lover-slash-stepmother, calling for a double sacrifice. Before that can happen, however, the ghost of Carlo V—Philip’s father and Carlo’s grandfather—emerges and drags his grandson into a tomb. Some productions, like the Théâtre du Châtelet’s 1996 take on the opera’s French version, feature a Carlo who goes somewhat willingly, perhaps spellbound. Others, like the recent Met production helmed by Nicholas Hytner, imply that Carlo is already half-dead and his grandfather’s apparition appears as the figurative bridge to the afterlife.

Regardless of the staging, the finale of Carlos is a page right out of Edgar Allan Poe’s book, bound to stir up feelings of taphophobia crafted by the literary master in The Premature Burial. It’s not immediately clear whether Poe (1809-49) had any influence on Verdi (1813-1901) or vice-versa, but it is somewhat serendipitous that, at the dedication of the Poe Monument in Baltimore on November 17, 1875, the Philharmonic Society performed the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from I Lombardi.

The Romantic era of music is flush with strange and sacred noises of sensationalism, elements that dovetailed nicely with the larger-than-life plots of opera. Lucia di Lammermoor’s family values would make the eponymous clan in The Fall of the House of Usher blush. The appearance of Drago’s ghost in Schumann’s Genoveva is as guilt inducing as the beating of The Tell-Tale Heart. The revenges and gory murders in Verdi’s Macbeth and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, rich in dramatic potency and harmonic colors, are dishes best served out of The Cask of Amontillado. Even the Russians get in on the action: Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame—itself based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin—with its tale of an obsessive gambler being visited by the ghost of a woman he spooked to death, wouldn’t seem out of place cozied up to The Black Cat.

Unsurprisingly, Poe’s white-knuckle plots and lyrical prose have served as a longtime attraction to opera composers. Over the course of nine years Debussy toyed with an adaptation of Usher, La chute de la maison Usher, in conjunction with Le diable dans le beffroi, an adaptation of Poe’s The Devil in the Belfry. Both were to have been performed at the Met rival Manhattan Opera House upon the company’s success with Pelléas et Mélisande, but were left unfinished upon the composer’s death in 1918. Usher has since been reconstructed in two separate incarnations by Carolyn Abbate and Juan Allende-Blin. (Ironically, Blin’s reconstruction—recorded for EMI in 1984—is the second recording of Debussy’s opera; the work’s orchestral prelude is included, uncredited, on the Alan Parsons Project’s 1976 album Tales of Mystery and Imagination.) Both Diable and Usher were presented in re-constructed forms in 2009 at the Opéra Français de New York.

More famous in the Usher house is Philip Glass’s 1987 adaptation of the piece, which carries in its score an ambiguous creepiness on par with Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Between 1973 and 1991, prog-rocker Peter Hammill also toiled on his own homage to the work. Augusta Read Thomas took on Ligeia, and The Tell-Tale Heart has found a home in opera scores from Bruce Adolphe to The Police drummer Stewart Copeland.

And Poe continues to provoke. This Thursday, the American Lyric Theater showcases The Poe Project at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music on W. 37th Street. However, the three new works read in the evening’s performance—Buried Alive by Jeff Myers and Quincy Long…of the Flesh by Jay Anthony Gach and Royce Vavrek, and Embedded by Patrick Soluri and Deborah Brevoort—are not merely adaptations. Rather, as ALT puts it, they are meditations on the question “What might Poe write if he were alive today?” After hearing Myers and Vavrek’s captivatingly grotesque teen-girl-on-Satan love story Maren of Vardo at New York City Opera’s VOX earlier this spring, it seems like ALT has tapped into a solid lineup of composers well-equipped to the challenge.

Operas based on Poe’s literary output are one thing, but the writer’s troubled personal life—capped off by a death alternately attributed to alcohol, drugs, cholera, rabies, suicide and that all-purpose operatic ailment of tuberculosis—is largely underrepresented in the opera house. His life has spawned numerous musicals by the likes of Marie’s Crisis pianist Jack Aaronson, the classically inclined David Lenchus and the Alan Parsons Project’s lead singer Eric Woolfson.

The most significant operatic endeavor, however, has been Dominick Argento’s 1975-6 work The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, a fever-dream rhapsody that combines the otherworldliness of the master’s stories with the turbulence of his biography. The result is a hallucinatory work that would make devotees of Aronofsky’s film Black Swan feel like they’ve done one pirouette too many. Critically praised upon its world premiere in Minnesota, this opera is long overdue to dock in New York. There are plenty of potential ports.