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Record Review Reprint
Every time I hear that someone has written a piece around some Poe, particularly this piece, I feel the feint tinges of regret that Debussy never got further than sketches for his approach to an opera based on this piece. Ah well. Hammill doing Poe is a decent compensation. The first thing one needs to do before listening to this is to forgive Andy Bell for Erasure. That done, one can continue. Libretto by the eccentric Chris Judge Smith and music by Hammill, this is a short opera based on the famous Poe tale. "Opera" is perhaps misleading to those who associate it with large orchestras and mannered classical singing. The singing is all "normal" and the instrumentation is largely electronic keyboards and very modern production. Hammill was made for the part of Roderick Usher and it is largely this that holds this together. That is not to say he is solely responsible for its success. Performances are good all round. Andy Bell in particular demonstrates that he does indeed have a nice voice. Well. After introductory material, Hammill delivers the first point of moment with Architecture. Obviously this is not a big budget production as Hammill is reduced to multitracking himself in order to fake a chorus which depicts the voices of the house. Some marvellously powerful harmonies, quite unlike anything else Hammill has done, very dark and very nice for the mood. Followed by one of two settings of Poe poems Hammill has worked into the story as Usher singing at his organ. Hammill singing Gothic laments to organ accompaniment is not be missed. Wonderful. Recitative follows until Leave This House: a duet for Hammill and Bell with interjections by the chorus character and the voices of the house. Much overdubs therefore since the voices are mainly Hammill. The shadowing by the chorus character is mildly annoying at the start but it builds to a lovely climax with the house declaring its power. Act III sees the first entry of Lene Lovich as Madeline. Dreaming is superb. Very enigmatic and wonderfully written. One notices lacking in the sounds here. A real orchestra would have been far better. Recall the power Hammill can manage in tracks like This Side of the Looking Glass when he is afforded the facilities. Occasionally, I feel the tracks are plagued by a digitalised drum beat which appears to be entirely unnecessary. Still, the Herbalist arrives in the form of Herbert Grönemeyer and delivers a quirky and upbeat account of himself. Possibly slight out of place but nicely sung in a strange voice. I quite like it actually and would like to hear more of his material. It ends succinctly and nicely in respect of the libretto. Judge Smith delivers some nicely written and funny lyrics regarding cures for impotence too here too! Act IV is possibly the weakest of them all due to a mildly unpleasant duet for Lovich and Bell. However, when Hammill remarked before its release that there were no "Lloyd Weberisms" in it, he meant it. It never gets that bad. Lovich has a lovely voice that sounds as if it would be at home in a folk setting. Hammill demonstrates his beautiful velvet lower register followed by a superb section entitled No rot in which Montressor vies for space with Usher and the voices of the house. Crafted counterpoint like nowhere else in the opera. Act V consists of the single track She is dead, the longest track in fact. Not terribly interesting but spiced up by accompaniment from the Herbalist. Act VI begins with the rather weak Beating of the heart which rather retards the roll towards the finale and is followed by the anything but weak The Haunted Palace with Hammill's setting of the second Poe poem with more organ. Powerful vocals leading into I dared not speak where Hammill begins to induce some frenzy into the pace as the opera nears the end. He begins to stretch his voice to breaking point as is common in his live performances. Madeline breaks from her coffin and begins a thematic curate's egg with most characters partaking. Darkly Gothic, particularly the rather terrifying house voices that enter in the final section The Fall. The fade is wonderfully done with dissonant chords and the voices of the house falling into a sustained amalgam of a constant compressed tone. Just right. Overall, a very deserving piece that one tends to forget rather too swiftly after hearing it. I have come to the conclusion that this is due to the modern instrumentation and production which is not really appropriate for either Poe or the music. A real orchestra would raise this from good to excellent. Still, quite unique and something I am sure everyone would find to their liking in some way.
© 1996 Phil Kime
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