Rare staging of opera based on Brontë novel

  • Article by: WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2011 - 11:05 AM

Famed film composer Bernard Herrmann's only opera is an emotion-packed, if often slow, ride.

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Lee Poulis as Heathcliff and Sara Jakubiak as Catherine Earnshaw in the Minnesota Opera’s “Wuthering Heights.”

Photo: Photo By Michal Daniel

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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.

The libretto, by Herrmann's wife, Lucille Fletcher, is a straightforward adaptation of Emily Brontë's novel, and Hermann's music well captures the story's fevered obsession.

Most of the musical interest resides in the orchestra. The resplendent music is reminiscent of Herrmann's film scores, but it is rooted firmly in the tradition of American romanticism, exemplified by composers like Samuel Barber.

The vocal line is mainly extended recitatives, broken up by arioso and a number of extended arias. But too many of them are of similar tempo and mood, resulting in a sameness of vocal utterance.

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.

Under Eric Simonson's direction, Heathcliff and Cathy come across as a pair of passionate lovers, compelling in their all-consuming ardor. The details of his staging give the over-the-top story an emotional verisimilitude.

Lee Poulis' Heathcliff was a most vivid characterization. He brought a Byronic presence and a dark baritone, rich in colors. He was capable of dark rage, but became all the more engaging in stillness.

Sara Jakubiak made Cathy's casual selfishness palatable. She has a silvery, gleaming soprano, but needed more heft to fully scale the heights of dramatic intensity called for by the music.

Minnesota Opera makes a strong case for "Wuthering Heights," but this is an opera I never need to hear again.

William Randall Beard writes regularly about music and theater.

  • related content

  • Fear of 'Heights'

    Friday April 15, 2011

    Minnesota Opera tackles Bernard Herrmann's "Wuthering Heights."

  • WUTHERING HEIGHTS

    What: By Bernard Herrmann. Directed by Eric Simonson. Conducted by Michael Christie.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue., Thu. and Sat.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $20-$200. 612-333-6669.

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