A Rare Opportunity: Bernard Herrmann’s Magnum Opus

by Walter Simmons

The year 2011 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bernard Herrmann, one of the most celebrated composers of film scores in cinematic history. Among his best known scores are those for Citizen KaneJane EyreVertigoNorth by NorthwestPsychoCape Fear, and Taxi Driver. However, like so many composers primarily active in film, Herrmann had aspirations beyond serving simply as handmaiden to another genre. He wrote a number of works purely for the concert hall, including a symphony and a cantata based on Moby Dick. But the one he considered to be his crowning achievement was an operatic adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. Though a tough-talking, hard-bitten New Yorker, Herrmann was deeply romantic at heart, with strongly Anglophilic tastes. From the early 1940s, when he scored Robert Stevenson’s film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the notion of an operatic version of Wuthering Heights became something of an obsession for him. Like the 1939 William Wyler film adaptation, Herrmann’s opera dealt with only the first portion of the novel, ending with Catherine’s death. Using a libretto adapted by Lucille Fletcher (Herrmann’s first wife), he did not complete his work until 1951, at which point he undertook efforts to have it produced. Unfortunately this was not to happen within his lifetime. The opera was considered for production by several companies, but, running some three and a half hours without intermission, it was deemed excessively long. However, Herrmann—a notoriously irascible individual—adamantly refused to consider any modification of the score. During the mid-1960s he funded a recording of the work himself, which he conducted, but this document, marred by inferior singing, did little to promote interest in it. However, those admirers of Herrmann who sought out the recording—now long out-of-print—discovered an opera filled with luxurious, evocatively gloomy music in a neo-romantic vein. Its first stage production was undertaken by the Portland Opera in 1982—seven years after the composer’s death—in a version that was cut rather drastically, with a saccharine ending tacked on.

The foregoing background provides some inkling of the eager anticipation felt by Herrmann’s admirers, as well as by adventurous operaphiles, when the Minnesota Opera announced its intention to revive the work in April, 2011, in honor of the composer’s centenary. Director Eric Simonson went back to the original, confident that the potential was there for an effective operatic vehicle. Joined by conductor Michael Christie, the team decided to move the tempo more quickly, and to remove some of the work’s redundancies, so that the result lasted under three hours, including intermission—not unusually long by conventional operatic standards. The production had the benefit of some fine singers who were also convincing actors, led by Sara Jakubiak as Catherine, Lee Poulis as Heathcliff, and Victoria Vargas as Nelly. The sets, with most effective use of scrims and projections, were designed by Neil Patel and Wendall K. Harrington. Representatives of opera companies from all over the country were in attendance to assess the viability of this revival.

Familiar with Herrmann’s film music as well as with the 1966 recording of the opera, I had some idea of what to expect, and was not disappointed. Since I did not see the 1982 production, I can’t compare that abbreviated version with this one, although their final durations were similar. However, I can compare it to the complete version, as recorded by the composer, and found nothing missing that was crucial to the work’s impact, nor did the faster tempos distort its character in any way. Herrmann was a great master at evoking subtly nuanced moods, and from the first notes the haunted, brooding atmosphere was irresistibly palpable, accomplished through several orchestral interludes. In order to provide stage action during these interludes, choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble devised brief choreographic episodes that suggested the feelings of the main characters through fantasy. The vocal lines—as in so many operas since Wagner’s time—emerge from and weave in and out of the orchestral fabric in continuous, long-lined lyricism, unlike the series of self-contained arias linked together by recitative found in so many familiar operas of the past. Wuthering Heightsis not fraught with the excessive declamation that proves the undoing of so many 20th-century operas, nor is the music atonal by any stretch of the imagination; however, through-composed operas such as this often require several hearings before melodic lines become clearly apparent to the listener. In composing this work, Herrmann embraced essentially the same evocative neo-romantic language he had adopted in the score for Jane Eyre, effectively conveying the opera’s dark moods and passionate emotions.

True, there were still some problems involving the opera’s dramatic form: While a deliberate pace is to some degree appropriate and inevitable—that is the natural rhythm of a work set in this style and period—somewhat more disturbing are abrupt shifts in characterization without sufficient motivational rationale. These shifts are attributable more to the libretto than to the musical score. But as the local write-ups began to appear, I was disappointed to discover that one after the other—primed by the work’s history—voiced the most predictable observations: the pace dragged, there were too few arias, the music was too cinematic, … It will be interesting to see whether the more prominent, nationally recognized critics provide more astute reactions. I found the work to be quite as effective as any number of other neo-romantic operas, by composers like Barber, Floyd (who also tried his hand at setting Wuthering Heights), and the late Lee Hoiby. I feel confident that those with a taste for this genre will share my enthusiasm for Herrmann’s contribution. I understand that this production has been videotaped in HD for theatrical distribution, and that the work is already scheduled for performance in New York during the 2011-12 season.