Sara Jakubiak as Catherine Earnshaw in The Minnesota Opera production of Wuthering Heights
All photos by Michal Daniel
Minnesota Opera presents “Wuthering Heights,” the opera based on Emily Brontë’s novel, through April 23. Thinking of seeing the show? Check out these excerpts of reviews from the local media – click on the links to read the full reviews.
Oscar-winning film composer Bernard Herrmann contributed to the success of such renowned films as “Citizen Kane,” “Psycho” and “Taxi Driver.” His sole opera, “Wuthering Heights,” went unperformed during his lifetime. In fact, it had been produced only once before Minnesota Opera took it up.
I went to the opening, Saturday night the Ordway Center in St. Paul, hoping to discover a neglected masterpiece. The opera was not that, though Minnesota Opera treated it as if it were.
…Conductor Michael Christie led a brisk performance, but he could not overcome the opera’s fatal flaw: Herrmann’s lack of experience in pacing opera. Too often, forward momentum is sacrificed to orchestral expressiveness, as in Act IV, when another interlude interrupts drama that should be propelling to the climax.
The physical production could hardly be bettered. Neil Patel’s set creatively contrasts an oppressive and gloomy Wuthering Heights estate with the elegant and airy neighboring Thrushcross Grange. Wendall K. Harrington’s projections create an effective visual representation of the music.
…Minnesota Opera makes a strong case for “Wuthering Heights,” but this is an opera I never need to hear again.
Joshua Ross as Hareton, Victoria Vargas as Nelly Dean and Ben Wager as Hindley Earnshaw in The Minnesota Opera production of Wuthering Heights
…you’re not likely to come away wondering why this work hasn’t been hailed as a modern masterpiece.
If only the tunes were as evocative as their words. Instead, the most swoon-ready love songs are given to Cathy’s supposedly stiff-upper-lipped husband, Edgar — and are sung splendidly by Eric Margiore.
…That’s not to say this opera is lacking for marvelous music. It’s just that almost all of it emanates from the orchestra pit. And conductor Michael Christie and the Minnesota Opera Orchestra sounded terrific on Saturday, the textures wonderfully woven, sweet solos pealing out from oboes, clarinets, violins and others.
If only Herrmann had given more of those melodies to the singers.
Lee Poulis as Heathcliff and Jesse Blumberg as Mr. Lockwood in The Minnesota Opera production of Wuthering Heights
…Despite occasional flaws, the work is a rich and rewarding endeavor, as compelling in dramatic terms as it is musically accomplished, and the superb, thoughtful production it is receiving at the Ordway Center serves only to make the opera’s strengths abundantly clear.
… It’s a brilliant score in many ways. Much of it is delicate chamber music, though the climaxes, like that of the first act, are almost over-powering in their force. (Yes, we do hear echoes of Herrmann film scores such as “Vertigo” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”)
And what of that awkward ending that Herrmann left us? Heathcliff is supposed to wander the moors endlessly searching for Cathy. Simonson has him lie down with her on the table, as if joining her in death, and then carrying her decayed body across a field. Grim, perhaps, but surely a better solution than having the two of them climb toward heaven and the celestial choir, as happens in the 1939 movie.
Lee Poulis as Heathcliff and Sara Jakubiak as Catherine Earnshaw in The Minnesota Opera production of Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights recalls Oscar Wilde’s famous criticism of Richard Wagner’s operas: it has “great moments and very dull quarters of an hour.” As is, it’s been trimmed significantly from Herrmann’s original version (the composer died in 1975, so he had no say in the matter)–which, with all respect to the great Herrmann, probably serves his memory better than if it hadn’t been cut.
As a composer, Herrmann’s special genius was orchestral texture: shivering strings, yelping horns, foreboding woodwinds. (As David Sander succinctly puts it in his program notes, “Herrmann was not a melodist.”) It’s a treat to hear those textures come alive at the Ordway; conductor Michael Christie whips the orchestra into life for the opera’s several thrilling moments. At those moments, particularly when textures and melodies intertwine and overlap, the opera really pops. It’s when lyricism is required–when characters are lengthily professing their devotion, or their pain–that Wuthering Heights sags. Despite his intention to place “utmost importance on the expressiveness of the vocal roles,” writing for the solo voice was evidently not Herrmann’s forte, and this production’s powerful leads are often reduced to mumbling, moaning, or barking.
…Though I appreciated this very rare opportunity to see the opera that Sander calls Herrmann’s “lifelong obsession,” this production does not make a convincing case for the piece to enter the standard repertoire. Herrmann fans will want to see this production, but others may find it more satisfying to stay home and curl up with Emily Brontë’s classic novel.
Have you seen “Wuthering Heights?” If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.