‘Wuthering Heights’ On CD Points Up The Opera’s Flaws

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon starred in the 1939 film version of ‘Wuthering Heights.’

Carlisle Floyd: Wuthering Heights. World Premiere Recording. Georgia Jarman (Cathy), Kelly Markgraf (Heathcliff), Susanne Mentzer (Nelly), Vale Rideout (Edgar Linton), Heather Buck (Isabelle Linton), Chad Shelton (Hindley Earnshaw), Florentine Opera Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Mechavich conducting. Reference Recordings. FR-721 SACD (2 discs). Total Time: 139: 23.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — Stories about star-crossed lovers are hugely popular in literature the world over. The ill-fated relationships of Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, and Layla and Majnun, for example, have been the stuff of poetry, plays, and novels for centuries. One of the best, written by Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, 1845), is about Cathy and Heathcliff and the stormy affair that destroys the lives of both. Their story has not only spawned numerous film and television versions, but has also fascinated composers, one of whom, Carlisle Floyd, wrote an opera based on the novel, which was given its premiere by the Santa Fe Opera in 1958. Now, 57 years later – long overdue – we have the opera’s first recording, by Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera.

7719Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the name of the Earnshaw family home, recounts the history of this family over several generations. The famous 1939 film adaptation, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon and directed by William Wyler, deals only with the first generation of Earnshaws, confining itself to the story of Cathy Earnshaw and her adopted gypsy brother, Heathcliff, growing up in the same household. The two are very close until Cathy’s father dies and her natural brother, Hindley, becomes head of the household, at which point Heathcliff is relegated to the status of servant and is repeatedly abused by Hindley. Ultimately, Heathcliff is driven off and Cathy marries the socially prominent and wealthy Edgar Linton. Several years later, Heathcliff, having made his fortune, returns and demands that Cathy run away with him. When she refuses, he marries Isabella, Edgar’s sister, though he is still wholeheartedly and hopelessly in love with Cathy. In the film, Heathcliff gets his revenge on Hindley and takes over Wuthering Heights. Cathy dies, but not before being reunited with Heathcliff in one last passionate embrace.

Floyd wrote the libretto for his opera and pretty much followed the distillation of the novel as rendered by the writers for the Wyler film. This meant leaving out the second part of the novel as well as numerous episodes in the first part. These are the sorts of issues that librettists and composers have to sort out all the time, and it becomes a question of what will work on an opera stage in terms of the arc of the narrative and character development. In the case of Floyd’s opera, using the Wyler film as a model – and the film itself often has an operatic feel with extensive use of music composed by Alfred Newman – the composer-librettist gives us what passes for a love scene between Cathy and Heathcliff as they roam free in the heather in Act I, scene 2. Then, in Act II, scene 2, Cathy has an extended aria in which she agonizes over marrying Edgar while still in love with Heathcliff. The opera culminates in Cathy’s death scene, in which Heathcliff vividly recalls how, in their youth, they were so happy together, cavorting on the moors.

Although the libretto is good, one might well ask whether the music rises to the challenge of the words. Certainly, Cathy’s aria in Act II, a set piece that Floyd composed for Phyllis Curtin before he wrote the opera, is well crafted and powerfully captures Cathy’s ambivalence. The love scene in Act I, however, is not nearly strong enough to convey the self-destructive passion of the lovers. It is odd that Floyd, who writes in a full-blown romantic style, misses the opportunity to write a real love duet. Strangely, in this crucial scene, Cathy and Heathcliff never sing together.

In the final scene, with Cathy on her deathbed and Heathcliff consoling her as in the film, Floyd’s music seems aimless and uninvolving, much less effective than Newman’s in the film. Newman’s use of a solo cello with solo strings is far more moving.

Lyric coloratura Georgia Jarman, in the role of Cathy, gives a very fine performance. Jarman was recently featured in a wonderful Covent Garden performance of Szymanowski’s opera King Roger, staged by Kaspar Holten and conducted by Antonio Pappano (Opus Arte DVD OA BD7162). Both vocally and dramatically, she is a compelling presence in Wuthering Heights. In contrast, baritone Kelly Markgraf’s portrayal of Heathcliff lacks authority, and his voice often sounds strained. Veteran mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer gives a solid performance as the nurse/housekeeper Nelly. The Milwaukee Symphony, under Joseph Mechavich, plays without any special distinction.

As music drama, Wuthering Heights is fairly effective, although there are no memorable tunes. Unfortunately, Floyd’s music too often disappoints us in failing to come alive in the climactic moments of the drama. That said, there are surprising moments; for example, the minuet near the beginning of Act III has a lovely bittersweet quality that Floyd deftly transforms into a waltz as Cathy exclaims “A waltz, please! I must have a waltz! This minuet is stifling me!”

American composer Carlisle Floyd turns 90 in June 2016.
American composer Carlisle Floyd turns 90 in June 2016.

Floyd, now 89, has written twelve operas, of which Wuthering Heights was the third. His works, particularly Susannah and Of Mice and Men, are performed regularly by opera companies across the country.

Although this first recording of a major work by one of America’s leading opera composers is welcome, it leaves much to be desired. Balance, for example, is a problem. We often strain to hear the words over the orchestra. Floyd the composer getting the better of Floyd the librettist? And the orchestration often seems too busy, although, to be fair, one could say the same about Richard Strauss. But, then, in the case of Strauss, even when the orchestration is busy, the music is great.

Ultimately, I would lay the blame for poor balance at the feet of the recording team. In an opera house, we don’t expect to hear the voices carry over the orchestra with perfect clarity at all times; on a recording, in contrast, we certainly do. Had the libretto not been provided in the booklet that comes with the recording, the listener would literally be at a loss for words much of the time.

That said, there are some anomalies in this booklet. The synopsis is quite misleading since it leaves out almost everything that happens in Act I of the opera and gives only the vaguest description of the rest of the story. And then there is the “About the Composer” essay by Andrew Porter. Porter died in 2015 and yet there are references to events that occurred in 2016. In fact, some of the events are mentioned twice. Reference Recordings might want to consider tightening up their editing in future releases.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.comwww.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.