First operas, even by major opera composers, tend to be inept and end up largely forgotten. Has anyone heard Puccini’s “Le Villi” lately or Verdi’s “Oberto”?
From this perspective, Bernard Herrmann’s debut opera, “Wuthering Heights,” Minnesota Opera’s final offering of the season, seems especially remarkable. 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.
Herrmann, who died in 1975 — and never saw his opera staged — was no stranger to the world of dramatic music when he embarked on “Wuthering Heights” sometime in the 1940s. (It’s not clear exactly when.) He had composed scores for radio drama in the 1930s, and, starting in 1941, when Orson Welles invited him to write the score for “Citizen Kane,” became one of the busiest and most innovative composers for films, including his eight revered collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.
A life-long Anglophile, Herrmann took inspiration not only from English literature — Emily Brontë’s ageless gothic novel was perfect material for him — but also from English composers such as Vaughan Williams, Holst and Delius, whose late-Romanticism became the hallmark of Herrmann’s style. He worked fiercely on “Wuthering Heights,” writing some of it in 1951 during a prolonged visit to Minneapolis and finished it later that year.
His first wife, Lucille Fletcher, wrote the skillful libretto. His efforts to get the work produced came to nothing, however, partly because he was too stubborn to make changes. Portland Opera gave the work its premiere in 1982.
As with the classic 1939 film version starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy, the doomed lovers, the opera deals only with the first half of Brontë’s novel, ending the story with Cathy’s death. Director Eric Simonson and his creative team make shrewd use of multimedia. The evocative video and slide projections by Wendall K. Harrington serve to open up the story — actually, more effectively than is the case with any of the various film versions.
Nature, as both friend and foe, is a constant backdrop — a foe certainly to the gloomy Christianity represented by the other family members. Cathy and Heathcliff are identified with nature — and they identify themselves as such. They are mid-19th-century Flower Children. In marrying Edgar Linton, Cathy seals her doom by settling for a bourgeois — for her, un-natural — life, a life embodied cleverly by Neil Patel’s tidy Hollywood Hills-style set for Thrushcross Grange, which is contrasted with the wild, increasingly unkempt house she and Heathcliff grew up in, Wuthering Heights. Harrington’s projections dominate the stage during Herrmann’s orchestral interludes, which recall the Sea Interludes from Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”
Simonson’s cast is uniformly strong. Lee Poulis is the handsome Heathcliff, a brooding, powerful presence onstage. His wounded pride and aristocratic bearing enforce Simonson’s theory that Heathcliff is the love-child of the elder Earnshaw, whom we don’t meet, and is therefore Cathy’s half-brother, a relation that Brontë could only hint at. Poulis’ rich baritone is a perfect match for Sara Jakubiak’s soaring, firm-toned soprano — and a wonderful characterization here, too, a woman torn between conflicting impulses — nature verses respectability.
Among the others, Ben Wager was compelling on opening night as the dissolute Hindley, Adriana Zabala was a sweet Isabella and Eric Margiore an earnest Edgar. Victoria Vargas was fine as Nelly, Rodolfo Nietro a properly stern Joseph and Jesse Blumberg a believably nervous Lockwood. (Blumberg’s “snow, ever-lasting snow” got a knowing laugh from the audience Saturday night. Brontë would have felt at home in a Minnesota winter.) Jane Greenwood designed the costumes and Robert Wierzel the lights. Heidi Spesard-Noble choreographed the dances, executed so winningly by Jeremy Bensussan and Megan McClellan.
Conductor Michael Christie drew a polished, passionate performance from the orchestra, and Herrmann’s many brief but telling woodwind solos came through beautifully. 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.
A Minnesota Opera production of Bernard Herrmann’s “Wuthering Heights,” Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. 7:30 p.m. Tues., Thurs and Sat. $20-$200. 612-333-6669.
Michael Anthony writes about classical music.