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The Sunday Opera: Bernard Herrmann's "Wuthering Heights"

For many, Bernard Herrmann is best known for his iconic film scores for Hitchcock films like “North by Northwest,” “Marnie,” “Obsession,” and “Psycho,” but Herrmann was a trained classical composer who wrote some glorious orchestral music and one full-length opera.

It is to that opera, “Wuthering Heights,” we turn for this week’s Sunday Opera (3/19 3:00 p.m.) in a 1966 recording led by the composer.

Here, Emily Bronte’s novel has been adapted by Herrmann’s then wife, Lucille Fletcher, who was a noted writer of screenplays for film, television, and radio. Her libretto was begun in 1943 and completed after their divorce in 1951. Herrmann had hoped to get the opera produced in his lifetime, but the requirements of the production including difficult vocal parts and a large orchestra made it impossible. Herrmann paid for the recording to which we’ll be listening so that it would not be forgotten since Fletcher said that the piece was perhaps the “closest to his talent and heart.” Sadly, an abridged production was mounted in 1986, but it wouldn’t be until 2011 and the centenary of Herrmann’s birth for there to be a staged version of the complete opera.

The story is fairly faithful to the book, but stops short of the second generation of Earnshaws as does the Hollywood film that starred Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier.

The cast here is lead by Donald Bell as Heathcliff, Morag Beaton as Cathy, Joseph Ward as Edgar Linton, Pamela Bowden as Edgar’s sister Isabella, Elizabeth Bainbridge as the housekeeper Nelly Dean, and John Kitchiner as Cathy’s boorish brother Hindley.

Other members of the cast include David Kelly as the traveler Mr. Lockwood, Michael Rippon as Joseph, Wuthering Heights’ caretaker, and Mark Snashall as Hindley’s son, Hareton.

They’re joined by The Pro Arte Orchestra which is conducted by the composer.

Stay tuned after the opera for more music of Herrmann including his delightful String Quartet titled “Echoes,’ and the haunting aria he wrote for “Citizen Kane” for the fictitious opera “Salammbo” sung here by Kiri Te Kanawa.

If you only know Bernard Herrmann from his film scores, this week’s Sunday Opera will be a delightful introduction to his classical works.

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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