Recording of the Week,
Selections from Bernard Herrmann's only opera, Wuthering Heights
When planning what to say about this new recording of music from Bernard Herrmann's only opera, I had initially intended to avoid any predictable references to his illustrious career as a film composer (most notably, of course, his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s and 60s), and yet on this occasion I feel it is justified, as it is through his cinematic work that the opera came to exist. Herrmann's first film score was for the Orson Welles-directed Citizen Kane in 1941, and it was Welles who, two years later, suggested Herrmann as the composer for a film of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (featuring Welles as Rochester). As part of his voracious background research, Herrmann read not only all of Charlotte's writings but also those by her sisters, and as a result soon became obsessed with crafting an opera based on Emily's sole novel, Wuthering Heights, which he finally completed in 1951.
Unfortunately the opera's theatrical fate has been far from distinguished: it was never staged during Herrmann's lifetime, and indeed the first uncut production did not occur until 2011. It has fared little better on disc: aside from the release of a 2010 concert performance from Montpellier conducted by Alain Altinoglu, its only recording was conducted by Herrmann himself in 1966, and neither of those is currently readily available.
What is billed here as a suite from the opera is actually an hour-long, chronologically-ordered selection of highlights adapted by Hans Sørensen. Herrmann is known as a highly inventive orchestrator, and Sørensen thankfully leaves the original instrumentation intact: the angst-ridden opening for timpani, snarling brass and restless piccolo perfectly conjures the dark and stormy expanse of the Yorkshire moors, vividly and colourfully performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under conductor Mario Venzago. This magnificent orchestral playing is a constant throughout, but is given especial opportunity to come to the fore in the various interludes that occur during the narrative. From the lush, Respighi-like passages in Act One where ecstatic strings and a gentle clarinet solo tenderly depict Cathy and Heathcliff as they watch the sunset together, to the nocturnal interlude from the same act as the stage is flooded with moonlight, the score is littered with many beautiful moments as ravishing as anything you might find in any Puccini opera.
While the opera calls for eight singers, Sørensen's suite reduces this to just the principal characters of Cathy and Heathcliff. Really the only part of the opera that ever gets an occasional outing on disc (previously recorded by sopranos including Renée Fleming and Kate Royal) is Cathy's Act Two aria, 'I have dreamt in my life', and this is definitely a highlight here too, with Keri Fuge's expressively lyrical voice providing just the right amount of wistfulness to match the reflective melancholy of Herrmann's music. She is equally affecting in a passage from Act Four where, knowing she is dying, she sings "in the manner of a plainchant", imagining Heathcliff's words and wondering how he might remember her twenty years thence.
The role of Heathcliff is taken by baritone Roderick Williams, and he is every bit as sublime as expected, moving effortlessly from exquisitely rapturous in the early duet with Cathy to sorely soul-searching in his aria from Act One, Scene Two (a setting not of text from the novel but of a poem by Brontë, 'I am the only being whose doom'). Almost half of the suite involves music from the final, fourth act of the opera, and here again Williams is on commanding form, deeply nuanced as his initial rage following Cathy's death gives way to anguish and sorrow as he commands her spirit to 'Haunt me, then! Be with me always!'. The closing moments are most poignant as, imagining that he can hear Cathy's voice repeatedly calling "Heathcliff" across the moors, he sinks to the floor, leaving behind the eerie sound of bass clarinets, muted brass, and low flutes. It makes for an atmospheric conclusion to what I consider to be one of the great, unjustly-neglected twentieth-century operas. Now please can we have a new production of the whole thing?
Keri Fuge (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Mario Venzago, Joshua Tan
Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC