Review of the opera Wuthering Heights by Bernard Herrmann.

The Minnesota Opera hosted an enterprising evening Thursday, April 14.  The evening was an invitation extended to local bloggers to attend a dress rehearsal of Bernard Herrmann’s  Opera Wuthering Heights.  Bernard Herrmann  is primarily remembered for his film scores, including this for Alfred Hitchcock and Citizen Kane.

We convened at the Sakora restaurant for substantial hors d’oeuvres.  We had an opportunity to mingle with some of the MSO staff and the guest conductor of the Opera, Michael Christie.  He certainly is an advocate for Bernard Herrmann’s music, but in answer to one of my questions, it seems he would not die on sword for him.

Following these pleasantries we headed to the Ordway, for a full dress rehearsal.

Now let me say at the outset that there were a lot of distractions, especially an armada of computer screens in front of us.  However I do believe I was able to tune out these distractions.  Nothing went badly wrong and the performance was presented with no forced breaks in the action or music.

And let me state that previously I had not been at all familiar with the music of Bernard Herrmann.  MPR classical have done an excellent job of introducing his music over the past week.  I have attended operas and have quite a large collection on LP, tape, CD, DVD and now especially Blue Ray disc.

Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights certainly has a lot of the required attributes for an opera libretto.  This is a very short version.

Catherine Earnshaw lives with her irascible alcoholic brother Hindley at Wuthering Heights.  Also in the household is Heathcliff, a Gypsy boy who their late father adopted into the household when they were children.

Catherine and Heathcliff are in love.  This does not sit well with Hindley who comes down hard on Heatcliff and has the farm manager Joseph put him to work doing hard labor on the estate.

On a Christmas Eve their neighbors, brother and sister, Edgar and Isabella Linton come over from the Thorncross estate.

Heathcliff is disheveled and refuses to be smartened up by the housekeeper Nellie.  Heathcliff is in a sulky mood and sizes up Edgar as a rival for Catherine’s affections.

Over time Heathciff’s jealousy increases.  After a heart to heart with the housekeeper Nellie, Catherine decides to wed Edgar.  Nelly is full of foreboding for the whole affair.

Heathcliff makes good and becomes flush with cash.  At a visit to Thorncross by Heathcliff, Catherine’s passions are again aroused for Heathcliff.  This is not unnoticed by Edgar who becomes jealous of Heathcliff.  Isabella becomes attracted to Heathcliff and becomes entrapped in a loveless marriage to him.  Heathcliff becomes master of Wuthering Heights and buys it from Hindley who is mired in debt from alcohol and gambling.

In the last of the four acts, Isabella is jealous of Catherine whom she believes to be having an affair with Heathcliff, which she isn’t.  Hindley tries to kill Heathcliff in the presence of his son, Hareton.  Isabella intervenes and saves Heathcliff’s life.  However Heatcliff strorms out after wresting the gun from Hindley, as he scorns his unloved wife.

In the final scene Catherine enters ill and  Heathcliff  asks her why she betrayed her by marrying Edgar.  They forgive each other.  Catherine sees the after life and dies.

Now all this plays out in the bleak winter of the Yorkshire moors, apart from one relatively brief spring scene.  The opera plays this story out over three and half hours.

There are deep emotional waters here and obviously ripe for an opera libretto and deserving of great musical inspiration.  The libretto is by Herrmann’s first wife Lucille Fletcher.

The orchestra contained as many musicians as you could get in the Ordway pit, under the excellent direction of Michael Christie.  They were splendid advocates for this musical score and did not put a foot wrong.

The expert direction and staging were supplemented by effective and tasteful cinematic techniques.

All of the singers in addition to excellent vocal technique used with musicality were also excellent stage actors.

So now lets cut to the chase.  This Opera fails and the fault is entirely Bernard Herrmann’s, who lacks the musical skills and dramatic instincts to produce a compelling musical drama.

Herrmann takes a leaf out of Richard Wagner’s book, and uses the technique of a musical phrase known as Leitmotif to identify principle characters.  However none in my view were memorable and I can  not remember one two days later.  I could not identify a Leitmotif associated with states of mind, such as Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love.  May be I’m wrong about this, but I could not identify one.  So this did not make this reviewer at least identify with the character’s state of mind, like you do in Wagner’s music dramas.

Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes about a sadistic pedophile Fisherman, set in the town of Aldeburgh Suffolk, on the North Sea coast was given its first performance at Sadlers Wells in 1945.

Bernard Herrmann started to compose Wurthering Heights in 1947.

This I believe is an important observation.  Britten conceived the idea of the orchestra being a protagonist and taking the part of the North Sea in the drama.  Also Britten  used a declamatory style of singing in the opera as does Herrmann.

There the similarities end.  Britten’s work is a masterpiece, Herrmanns’s offering is far from it.

For instance I can’t think of any music from Wurthering Heights being worthy of entering the orchestral repertoire.  Britten’s opera garners world wide staging performances annually in the greatest opera houses of the world.  The Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes are a staple of the Orchestral repertoire.

Now Hermann’s score depicts cold bleak weather pretty much monotonously throughout the opera.  In periods of tense drama we hear trumpets and tympani, but curiously they convey little drama, the way Verdi does in similar circumstances.

But there are deeper problems which cause this work’s failure to move and convince.  First on foremost this is a tale of of love and passion, and above all conflicted loyalty and emotion.  Herrmann’s score conveys little to none of this.

For instance lets take the love of Catherine and Heathcliff.  First of all the amount of music devoted to this is minimal.  Now these two grew up as children in the same household.  At least on a psychological level there has to be an element of incest here.  There is none of the genius of the incestuous love scene between Sigmund and Sieglinde from Die Walkure, or any passionate music for that matter.

There is just no raw passion expressed in the music.  I personally longed for a duet, but Herrmann did not seem to posses the musical skills to write for more than one voice at a time.  The essence of this scene is missed because it is short and perfunctory.   The balance of the scene is filled out with largely dross, that should have been cut.

His music in my view fails to provide that vital short circuit to the listeners deep emotional centers so necessary when probing such deep emotional waters.

The only writing that comes in any way close to supporting the drama, is the scene when Catherine is weighing her love for Heathcliff over Edgar with Nellie, and is overheard by Heathcliff.

The end of the opera has overtures of Isolde’s death and transfiguration from Tristan and Isolde and Senta’s death at the end of  The Flying Dutchman.  However Herrmann’s music unlike Wagner’s does not come close to rising to the occasion.  The music at this point  totally fails to convey the emotions surrounding, and significance of Catherine’s death.

So throughout one longs for the passion of a Verdi or Puccini and the probing psychological insights of Wagner.  Bernard Herrmann sadly delivers neither.

The Minnesota Opera deserve out thanks and admiration for staging this work in such a fine production to asses its merits or lack thereof.

Under a grant from the Knight foundation, this opera will be recorded in HD.  Hopefully it will see the light of day as a Blue Ray in DTS master HD or Dolby True HD.  It might be I will have a different view of this work after a few showings in my beloved studio theater on Benedict Lake, that provides a truly wonderful experience for enjoying opera.  If a BD disc appears I will certainly buy a copy and revise and extend this review.

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