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Carlisle FLOYD (b. 1926)
Wuthering Heights - A musical drama in a prologue and three acts (1958) [139:25]
Libretto by the composer, after the novel by Emily Brontë
Catherine Earnshaw (Cathy) - Georgia Jarman (soprano); Heathcliff - Kelly Markgraf (baritone); Nelly - Susanne Mentzner (mezzo); Edgar Linton - Vale Rideout (tenor); Isabella Linton - Heather Buck (soprano); Hindley Earnshaw - Chad Shelton (bass); Mr. Earnshaw - Matthew Burns (bass); Joseph - Frank Kelly (tenor); Lockwood - Aaron Short (tenor)
Servants, Party guests - Florentine Opera Chorus
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/.Joseph Mechavich
rec. 9 & 11 January 2015, Sharon Lynne Wilson Center, Harris Theater, Brookfield, Wisconsin, USA
REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-721 SACD [69:51 + 69:52]

The ninetieth birthday of US composer Carlisle Floyd fell in June 2016. His lifetime's creative obsession lies in opera. The latest Floyd project, Prince of Players, enjoyed a successful run at Houston Grand Opera in March 2016. His other operas are Susannah (1955 - recorded by Erato, conducted by Nagano and with Jerry Hadley in the cast), Markheim (1966, on VAI), Of Mice and Men (1970, on Troy Albany), Flower and Hawk (1972), Bilby's Doll (1976), Willie Stark (1981) and Cold Sassy Tree (2000, Albany). Floyd is committed to having commercial recordings of all his operas released during his lifetime. Florentine Opera, who are responsible for this Wuthering Heights project, have plans to make recordings of Willie Stark and Bilby’s Doll.

The premiere of Floyd's Wuthering Heights took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico on 16 July 1958. There's a link in this set to a downloadable PDF facsimile of the 1958 libretto with stage directions. The conductor in 1958 was John Crosby and the cast included the late Phyllis Curtin as Cathy and Robert Trehy as Heathcliff. The work, in revised form, saw light of day at the New York City Opera in 1959 with a cast that had Phyllis Curtin returning as Cathy alongside Patricia Neway and Richard Cassilly.

While there have been numerous film adaptations of 'Wuthering Heights' surprisingly few full-scale musical treatments have appeared. Floyd's, at twenty minutes more than two hours, is certainly a big opera. There is a full blown four-act Bernard Herrmann opera (1966) recorded by the composer for Pye/Unicorn and more recently, successfully and accessibly, a French version, Les Hauts de Hurlevent on the Accord label. Paul Conway tells me that the late Arthur Butterworth intended a grand opera based on the novel but only a few pages were completed. This is sad as I can think of few composers more aptly equipped. There have been several musicals: Heathcliff, a 1996 entry by John Farrar, Cliff Richard and Frank Dunlop and two others, one each by Bernard J Taylor and Catherine McDonald.

Floyd's opera is both spectral and emotionally intense; there's nothing of the musical about it. The writing has about it a florid brilliance entirely in keeping with the themes of love in vain, betrayal and striving for the unattainable. It is by no means a chamber opera and the emotions are played out on a grand scale - Puccinian really.

This major Reference Recordings project is Wuthering Heights' first recording and presentationally no corners have been cut. The sound is deep stage and stunning. The libretto is there, profiles of the artists and an introduction by the composer. Add to this a synopsis of the plot, a profile of the composer and a list of the members of the orchestra. There's a separate booklet for the libretto which sensibly sits at the back of the case and avoids the main booklet being too thick for what is a fairly dinky single width case. That said, not everything is perfect in paradise. The libretto is not keyed into the CD tracks and on page 6 of the main booklet the names of the characters have in a couple of instances been cut short.

Tracking is good but not generous. There is a track for each scene and main component of the opera. The Prologue is tensely atmospheric, strong on foreboding and impelled by iterations of rhythmic cells. Scene One is very affecting with intriguing melodic material. The following scene is smokingly emotional and rises to a torrid march (10:20). Scene One of Act Two introduces a heart-easing melody of great beauty over an understated rocking figure (7:40). Cathy's voice soars high and not for the last time was I impressed with Georgia Jarman's precision of enunciation achieved without compromising passion and heat. At 8.34 the trumpets delightfully limn in the contours. The Act 2 Interlude inexorably charts a tragic trajectory. Scene Two of Act Two is notable for the building of long-range tension. When Edgar implores "Marry me Cathy" the effect is very touching. This is writing in the school of Puccini. It is also reminiscent at this point of the voluptuous moments in Copland's under-estimated opera The Tender Land.

The second part of Act Two, Scene Two starts on CD 2. Here the torment and superheated writing is further fuelled. The soprano's earlier word clarity begins to lose focus and you need the libretto. Jarman sings the paint off the walls; and I don't mean this in a bad way (10:40); I do hope that she discovers Vittorio Giannini's massive Scena, The Medead, it would suit her admirably and we need a first recording. Back to Wuthering Heights: At 11:06 the perfervid writing for soprano and orchestra emotes the character's torment.

In Act Three, Scene One the chorus are in the middle background with their singing 'lifted' by staccato horn punctuation. The poignant effect recalls Hanson's Merry Mount in its tension-building. At 6.40 remission from torrid passion arrives with a gentle and appealing melody. This soon melts into an emotionally complex waltz which had me thinking of Prokofiev, Ravel and Barber. In fact Barber's Vanessa is an apt travelling companion for the Floyd work, as is Menotti's contemporaneous Maria Golovin. Later operas which also share the manner and mood are Edward Thomas's Desire Under The Elms and Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas. At 11:07 Heathcliff's words "I did it all for you" recall Scarpia's ecstatically contained lust in the Te Deum at the end of Act One of Tosca.

In Act Three, Scene Two, Isabella's "He's taken my hand" is all tenderness in the singing of Heather Buck. She is torn and buffeted backwards and forwards with Heathcliff's words of Isabella ("… those pale blue eyes") as he almost taunts Cathy. In Act Three, Scene Three there is some peace at the start but we sense the tragic direction of travel at the words "let me smell the air". A measured trudging motion in the orchestra (6:40) signals accelerating intensity. The words "Kiss me, caress me" are movingly shaped but Floyd is not done with our emotions yet. At 11:30 there is yet more melting singing but this time with a penetrating emotional wind-chill. Gothic darkness is finally subdued (13:00) with tolling writing for orchestra that had me thinking of Howard Hanson's Sixth Symphony. Tellingly the work ends in aptly triumphant bitterness.

John Quinn has said of another Floyd opera (Susannah) that "Floyd offers, very successfully, what I’d term American verismo." I'd go with that for Wuthering Heights also.

The conductor Joseph Mechavich has already conducted Susannah, Of Mice and Men and Cold Sassy Tree so he is no stranger to Floyd's way with drama and music. Everything here, from soloist to chorus to orchestra, is fluently treated; nothing is in the least tentative. This is a princely production all round.

Rob Barnett

 

 




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