Wuthering Heights offers many glorious moments for its singers, in particular the role of Heathcliff…
Wuthering Heights, The Minnesota Opera
In terms of temperament, Bernard Herrmann and Wuthering Heights must have seemed in many ways the ideal meeting of opera composer and literary source. Herrmann’s stormy, unyielding nature was well known to those who worked with him when he was a staff conductor at CBS Radio in the 1930s and ’40s; soprano Eileen Farrell recalled that it was nothing unusual for him to throw down his baton minutes before he was about to lead a broadcast and scream that he wasn’t going on, only to return seconds before the “On the Air” sign flashed. And when Herrmann arrived in Hollywood in 1941, just two years before he began work on his only opera, Wuthering Heights, he quickly established a reputation for being fiercely protective of his own film scores without regard to the political consequences. In 1966, after a stunning collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock that had begun with The Trouble with Harry in 1955, Herrmann refused to rewrite his characteristically pins-and-needles music for the thriller Torn Curtain and turn it into a tinny ’60s pop score, as Hitchcock perversely demanded. Hitchcock fired him, and they never worked together again.
In 1943, Herrmann began to make an opera out of Emily Brontë’s novel, and he seems to have believed at every step of the way that it would be his towering achievement as a composer. Recently, as I re-read the book for the first time since college days, I was once again overwhelmed by its pitiless portrayal of Cathy and Heathcliff, whose inability to play out their mutual passion seals their doom. I can’t think of another English novel — not even any of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels — in which the natural setting plays such an inextricable role in the story. Cathy and Heathcliff are wild things who seem to spring up right out of the Yorkshire Moors, an idea that Herrmann captured with uncanny musical depth and precision. In characterizing the stark beauty of the moors, Herrmann might almost have taken his cue not only from Brontë but from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid“:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
A woodwind passage at the beginning of Act II, when Cathy has returned from her sojourn at Thrushcross Grange, captures the libretto’s setting — “a day of fitful changes, of sunlight and clouds, and a gathering thunderstorm” — so perfectly that you can practically see the exact colors of the sky and smell the humidity in the air.