SOME OBSERVATIONS ON
"WUTHERING HEIGHTS" (The Opera)
(Music by BERNARD HERRMANN / Libretto by LUCILLE FLETCHER)
Analysis by David Simmons
(from the booklet – Unicorn CD UKCD/2050/51/52)
It is an interesting comment on the British literary tradition that so few of her novelists have provided suitable subjects for operatic setting. Certainly there is an exception in the case of Scott. His vast spawning of legendary tales prompted operas from Auber, Bellini, Bishop, Bizet, Boieldieu, Donizetti and some twenty more besides. His fiery romanticism seems almost unique. But we also find that Dickens attracted Albert Coates, Goldmark, Mackenzie and Zandonai, and there are at least three Hardy operas. Exceptions like these seem to suggest especially as so many of them have failed to hold the stage, that there must be an inhibiting quality about the English novel. Opera composers of the past have avoided so many - Eliot, Thackeray, Austen, Wells, Glasworthy, etc. etc. - and until this century there is no record of any composer considering the novels of the Bronte sisters as possible operatic material.
But there is a perceptible change of attitude towards opera, and since Hofmansthal collaborated with Strauss, new precedents have been set in opera ‘books’. More recently, the influence of the cinema has added further material for all the arts, and few would dispute that, if he had wished, Richard Wagner today would have been a champion of the cinema in this developing twentieth century.
Emily Bronte completed her great novel fifteen years after Scott's death. Her sister saw it as a mixture of 'wild purity and satanism', and these elements have challenged and defied many composers, including the Yorkshire-born Delius. Perhaps E.M. Forster summarised them best whey be remarked that the emotions of Catherine and Heathcliff functioned differently from other emotions in fiction - 'for instead of inhabiting the character, they surround them like thunder clouds, and generate the explosions that fill the novel'.
Romanticism certainly, but romanticism of a period of change, for by the time the Bronte sisters were writing, deriving so much from their special confined environment, romantic fiction had come to embrace `legendary' abstractions. With the present composer we mast continue to accept the leading protagonists in Wuthering Heights as unassailable characters, and continue in our belief of them.
Such is the rhetoric of Emily Bronte, so Elizabethan is its ring, that we accept the poetic eminence of the names of each character. We know and we are never disappointed in, the portent of names such as Heathcliff, Hindley, Catherine Earnshaw - and of course, Wuthering Heights. They all challenge us, and we yield to the aspirations of Cathy, and the surrounding characters.
To treat these characters in their situation with any truth demands a concise yet accurate libretto, and, as we know, the task defeated Delius. But Delius, like William Wyler and his film colleagues in 1939, and like the present composer (Bernard Herrmann) and librettist (Lucille Fletcher), decided that only the tale of Cathy and Heathcliff was truly operatic.
The text demands a musical unity, without any pause or sacrifice to narrative or dramatic needs, with only theatrical breaks. This turbulent tale must be unfolded without pause. Consequently, within this continuing development, the choice of poems must allow for climactic moments to be developed by the composer as arias or scenes.
Now, one of the essentials of open as a musical presentation of human relationships is to show the special and passionate destinies of the leading protagonists in their immediate and wild surroundings
The score is always reminding us of this, for it projects Cathy, Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights, so that they may emerge as the essential personalities of their time, and in them context the subsidiary characters.
This can be noted in two important movements during the opera. The first is during the Prologue to Act One. Lockwood makes his first and only appearance with Nelly, and his developing scene, although apparently displaying his own perplexity, becomes of its own musical volition the essence of the opera, and leaves no doubt anywhere that this opera is only really concerned with Cathy, Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights.
Similarly, it is instructive to look at the emergence of Isabella Linton. In Act One, Scene Two, she has no singing part, she only observes Heathcliff inside Wuthering Heights. When her brother has married Cathy, she again appears, at first only in gesture, and then proffers a ballad, but the material of this song has already served as preludial matter to the Act. She marries Heathcliff but she is now a figure of acute disillusion, and her scene at this point balances the questioning of the prologue, and prepares us for the end. Everything then demands its surrender to Cathy, Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights, but one may admire the presentation of Edgar Linton's sympathetic yet common-place ardour, and the attention that has been fostered upon Nelly the housekeeper. Now she is permitted both a song and a lullaby outside her standard role as 'restrained' chorus. Similarly, Hindley projects villainy, Joseph is humbug - but all are steadfastly united in their unconscious purpose of projecting Cathy and Heathcliff.
In idiom the music can immediately be sensed as 'operatic'. It is dramatically scored, and some will find various influences. The situation and sometimes the treatment may perhaps remind the listener of the operas of Tchaikovsky. Perhaps, too, there are unconscious echoes of that strong, colouristic poet of the orchestra, Delius. But most noticeable of all, and thus is remarkable in a work of an American composer, his lyrical and dramatic expressiveness often seem to suggest an almost indefinable 'Englishness' both in its idiom and in its feel. This is very far from traditional national reserve, but well in accordance with the inspiration of Emily Bronte.
In fact, this opera is in the nature of a literary innovation, for while clearly owing something to the essential art of the film, it comes to justify its intrepid choice of subject matter. It records the situation of romantic love which will constantly recur - and from this fresh probing of Cathy and Heathcliff, Emily Bronte's haunting novel has become an opera.
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