Thursday 14 July 2016

On disc at last - Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights

Carlisle Floyd - Wuthering Heights - Refererence Recordings
Carlisle Floyd Wuthering Heights; Georgia Jarman, Kelly Markgraf, Susanne Mentzer, Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Mechavich; Reference Recordings
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 12 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Carlisle Floyd's 1958 opera based in Emily Bronte's novel finally on disc

This new recording from Reference Recordings finally brings Carlisle Floyd's 1958 opera Wuthering Heights to disc. Joseph Mechavich conducts Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, with Kelly Markgraf as Heathcliff, Georgia Jarman as Cathy, Susanne Mentzer as Nelly, Vale Rideout as Edgar Linton, Heather Buck as Isabella Linton, Matthew Burns as Mr Earnshaw, Frank Kelley as Joseph and Aaron Short as Lockwood.

Wuthering Heights is unusual in Carlisle Floyd's output (he has written around a dozen operas). The subject was entirely specified the by commissioners, with Floyd having little input, and it is one of his few operas not to deal with an American subject. His most famous opera Susannah sets the Biblical story of Susannah and the Elders in the Deep South, and he has also done operatic versions of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and of Olive Ann Burns' Cold Sassy Tree.

After the success of Susannah (in 1955) at New York City Opera, the soprano Phyllis Curtin (who had sung the role of Susannah) asked Floyd for an aria for a concert, and he wrote a setting of Cathy's monologue from Wuthering Heights which Curtin premiered at Carnegie Hall. It was assumed that his aria came from an opera; it didn't, Floyd thought of it as a concert aria. Eventually his publisher inspired the expansion of the aria into an opera commissioned for Santa Fe in 1958 with Phyllis Curtin in the title role.

Wuthering Heights has received rather less exposure than some of Floyd's comparable pieces, perhaps because of Floyd's identification with American themes thanks to the success of Susannah.
Floyd has based his libretto on the first part of the novel, the story of Cathy and Heathcliff made famous from the 1939 film with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. Floyd has kept the novel's structure in that the opera opens with Lockwood arriving at Wuthering Heights and learning something of the story, hearing Cathy's ghost and causing Heathcliff to go running into the night. The opera then jumps back 18 years and progresses sequentially in a series of tableaux, ending with Cathy's death in Heathcliff's arms. The settings are all interiors, either Wuthering Heights or Thorncross Grange.

Floyd's music is intense and dramatic, in a form of continuous arioso as the libretto is more poetic prose than poetry, with individual speeches standing out aria-like, including the one which gave rise to the piece in the first place. The language is more regular than Emily Bronte's, and there is little of the sense of place which characterises the novel. Though the music gusts, I never really feel the moors. That said, Floyd does use the orchestra a lot and the texture is punctuated with atmospheric orchestral episodes. This is a tragedy of two people drawn to each other yet failing to find themselves which has been made less specific and more international.

The recording was made at a pair of concerts performances and we have to be grateful for Florentine Opera that we finally have Wuthering Heights on disc. The disc comes with a libretto (though the sung text has subtle differences to the printed) and you need it. If the performances have a fault it is that the cast's diction is lacking; without the printed words it is difficult to follow the plot and there is a significant amount of dialogue in the opera.

Georgia Jarman makes a finely passionate Cathy and that aria (now at the end of Act Two) is a significant moment which Jarman makes tremendous. Kelly Markgraf's dark voiced Heathcliff is suitably intense and dramatic, brooding well and the opera concludes with a powerful duet for Jarman and Markgraf.

The other cast members get their moment, and Susanne Mentzer particularly stands out as a strong Nelly the housekeeper and very much a foil for Jarman's Cathy. A significant role is played by the orchestra, and Joseph Mechavich gets a fine performance from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and they take full advantage of the opportunities that Floyd gives them.

I suspect that a studio recording of Wuthering Heights is an unlikely prospect so we must be grateful to Florentine Opera and Reference Recordings for making this possible. I do hope the fact that there is now a recording means that other companies might try the piece out. This is Carlisle Floyd at his prime and deserves a wider audience.

Carlisle Floyd (born 1926) - Wuthering Heights (1958) [139.23]
Catherine - Georgia Jarman
Heathcliff - Kelly Markgraf
Nelly - Susanne Mentzer
Edgar Linton - Vale Rideout
Isabella Linton - Heather Buck
Mr Earnshaw - Matthew Burns
Joseph - Frank Kelley
Lockwood - Aaron Short
Florentine Opera
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Joseph Mechavich (conductor)
Recorded 9 & 11 January 2015, Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, Harris Theater, Brookfield, Wisconsin.
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