MUSIC | Bernard Herrmann’s “Wuthering Heights” gets a stormy, spotty production by the Minnesota Opera

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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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