MUSIC | Bernard Herrmann's "Wuthering Heights" gets a stormy, spotty production by the Minnesota Opera

Time flies when you're having fun: Lee Poulis in Wuthering Heights. Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Minnesota Opera.

The Minnesota Opera's current production of Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights is the opera's first fully-staged professional production since its 1982 debut. Given the obvious appeal of the idea of staging the only opera by arguably the greatest film composer of all time—and one of America's great composers, period—I wondered whether there might be a good reason it's taken three decades for the opera to be revived.

At the production's premiere on Saturday night, my suspicion was confirmed. 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.

wuthering heights, presented through april 23 at the ordway center for the performing arts. for tickets ($20-$200) and information, see mnopera.org.

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.

Staging an opera with such strong cinematic associations was a great opportunity for the production staff to get creative and really push the envelope, but like Herrmann's opera itself, this production is highly uneven. Set designer Neil Patel presents the interiors of Wuthering Heights as towering grey walls, which present projection opportunities that are used precisely once. The Ordway is a tall space to fill; but so is the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater, and the Guthrie set designers consistently outdo the Minnesota Opera set designers in filling that vertical space effectively. As opposed to Wuthering Heights, the Linton home in which Act III is set floats almost surreally in space, under an ominously suspended ceiling (get the metaphor?) but with no walls.

Two stage-spanning scrims are used extensively, often in combination, and while there are a couple of effective moments where characters move mysteriously behind them, more often they host projections of giant close-ups of flowers and clouds that look like nothing more than screensavers from a CD-ROM you'd buy for $4.99 at Office Max.

Stage director Eric Simonson had his work cut out for him: after the initial reverie between Catherine (Sara Jakubiak) and Heathcliff (Lee Poulis), the opera largely consists of characters sitting around sulking, occasionally stirring to threaten violence against one another. Simonson handles this fluidly enough, though he's not helped by Robert Wierzel's flat lighting design, which is a notable contrast to Josh Epstein's dynamic lighting design for La Traviata.

Though both Jakubiak and Poulis have powerful voices—they strain to find something interesting to do with what Herrmann gives them—Jakubiak is a stronger actress than Poulis is an actor. Jakubiak does a creditable job of conveying the weakness of character that ultimately reduces Catherine to self-loathing, but as Heathcliff, Poulis just looks pouty. The only drawback of having an 11th-row seat at stage right was that I had an all-too-clear view of Poulis's supremely awkward going-crazy face in Act IV.

Further awkward moments are provided by C. Andrew Mayer's sound design—is that meant to be thunder up there in the eaves, or are the stagehands beating each other with cookie pans?—and by Heidi Spesard-Noble's choreography for Jeremy Bensussan and Megan McClellan, who dance in representations of the emotional struggles between Catherine and Heathcliff. Throw your arms in the air and shake your head back and forth, then pull your lover close and then push him or her lugubriously away, and you kind of get the idea of how this comes off.

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.

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.

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Spot on

I read another review on this website for Wuthering Heights, and I wondered if we had seen the same show.  Though, I'm not sure that this opera could be saved by great set design, incredible actors, fabulous staging, and marvelous costumes (who picked this opera to round out the season, anyway???), I felt as though the team that put this one together didn't even try.  I might have forgiven the blunders (belated lighting behind the set, premature lifting of stage curtain, the many differences between the actual lyrics sung and those posted above the stage) if it had been a show worthy of forgiveness.  But, this being no Carmen, those things were glaringly obvious.  It's not the singers' fault that their beautiful voices were wasted on the 6-note composition, but I can't find it in my heart to like the show no matter how hard they tried.  To top it off, the trend of this company to use projection instead of real sets is not a good one.  The projections do not make up for lack of a set in most cases.  I can recall only one time where it was truly effective in any of the shows I've seen that used it--it was in Salome, where the projection provided a sense of foreboding as the racing clouds added tension to a scene before the scene really turned black.  But here and elsewhere (who uses projections to provide a feel of British royalty in Roberto Devereux?) it's ripped me out of the story.  The projected ghosts were not as haunting as Cathy's voice on the wind at the end.

I understand why the

I understand why the Minnesota Opera chose this opera, and I'm definitely glad I had the opportunity to see it. Though I was disappointed in the production overall, I think it was a smart programming choice, and crucially, the company came through and really delivered a strong performance of this unsatisfying, but still important, score.

Orchestra was beautiful

I agree that the *score* was great and done beautifully by the orchestra.  By the way, I note that the Tempo facebook page took down the link to this review.  That's too bad.  I'm afraid that people who go to the opera for the first time and only see glowing reviews might conclude that opera simply isn't for them since they might view any given opera with less enthusiasm and assume they're the ones who are wrong.

The Music of Wuthering Heights

I can only comment on the music, since I did not see the producton, living abroad currently. For a composer not known for his melodic side, the opera has a remarkable rich store of melodies, not only orchestral. True enough, a lot of the opera is carried by the orchestra, the characters singing mainly recitative. But that recitative is really Wagnerian in the sense of endless melody, though not exactly melody as we know it in a Lloyd-Webber musical and not even as extended as in a Puccini verismo opera. Apart from set pieces, such as the period parlor melodies, there are few extended arias familiar in Puccini. But to be fair to Herrmann, this is typical of modern opera; Britten after Peter Grimes is not so melodic either. It's obvious I wouldn't invite a novice to opera to hear or see Herrmann's to get them enthralled in operatic magic. I'd choose Verdi's middle period, Puccini, Tchaikovsky's Pushkin operas, or Porgy and Bess. Herrmann's opera obviously requires repeated hearings for the cellular motifs to sink in. But once they do, the experience is powerful; a constant flow of orchestral color and melodic passages flirting with muscular recitatives, intermitted by gorgeous interludes, not only orchestral either, as the Christmas chant shows. But I do agree this opera isn't for a casual audition by any means. For those who give it a little time t sink in, it's a grand experience. I don't think there's a dead passage in the entire opera.