Wuthering Heights is one of the few operas by Carlisle Floyd that isn’t based on an explicitly American story. Emily Brontë’s novel is set in Yorkshire, amid the moors that give the tale its famous atmosphere. But whether it’s English gothic or Southern (American) gothic, Floyd has a way with stories drenched in melodrama and mysticism.
The composer–the dean of American opera, as the Florentine Opera’s William Florescu aptly introduced him–is in Milwaukee this weekend to help the Florentine record his 1958 opera, part of the group’s initiative to produce commercial recordings of some of Floyd’s yet unreleased works. They did the composer proud.
It’s should come as no surprise that Wuthering Heights has been “opera-fied” several times (Bernard Herrmann also gave it a go). But Floyd’s vibrant style is a perfect fit for the heightened drama and rich atmosphere of the story. When Heathcliff (Kelly Markgraf) and Catherine (Georgia Jarman) take their first walk on the moors, Floyd’s orchestrations sweep over you like the stiff wind and inundate you with the damp heathery air. His melodic palette is full of ache and yearning, and Markgraf and Jarman colored them beautifully.
Markgraf and Jarman are front and center here, but the supporting cast is also fine. Heather Buck brings passionate colors to Isabella’s rapturous Act Three area, and Chad Shelton—making his Florentine debut—used his ringing tenor to capture the strident personality of Catherine’s controlling brother. Susanne Mentzer brings a touch of serenity and authority to her performance as Nelly, the housekeeper who watches the events unfold.
But the real star here is conductor Joseph Mechavich, who guided the orchestra and voices through Floyd’s often tempestuous orchestrations. He and the ensemble painted wonderful sonic pictures, but always in the service of the story and the drama. Brontë’s 1847 prose is still dramatically charged (if a little bit purple) if we read it today. But performed here, thanks to Floyd’s wonderful way with character, drama and musical textures, it seems as if it was always meant to be on the stage. And the recording should be a powerful representation of its place in American opera.
Photos by Danielle Chaviano.