`Wuthering Heights' Fails to Catch Fire

THE tortured tale of Cathy and Heathcliff, ripped from the imagination of Emily Bronte, makes for great melodrama. Everything is ragged and windswept: Heathcliff's brows, Cathy's hair, and the rugged moors. Certainly the setting of "Wuthering Heights" alone ought to make for good opera.

The Boston Lyric Opera has nearly all the elements that go into a compelling production - a dark craggy set with a manor house that changes into the moor, fine singers who look their parts, a well-conceived score, and good musical direction - but the company does not manage to bring the whole thing off.

"Wuthering Heights" concerns Heathcliff, an orphan brought up in a household where he is treated like a son until his foster father dies and he is relegated to servant status by the man's jealous son. Heathcliff falls in love with the daughter, Cathy, who, despite her love for Heathcliff, marries a wealthy landowning neighbor.

The problem lies with the acting of the two principals, Joan Gibbons as Cathy, and Jeff Mattsey as Heathcliff. Their responsibility for the opera's success is enormous: If the audience does not believe that the pair is recklessly and violently in love, the opera is pointless.

It has become an undeniable fact of opera that performers can no longer simply stand and sing. They must be able to act and move well. Acting is a problem for Ms. Gibbons. She tends to play Cathy like an imitation Scarlett O'Hara - full of darting looks and tempestuous tosses of her head. As the opera wears on, Gibbons shows Cathy to be stubborn, spiteful, and quite the social climber. Mr. Mattsey's acting consists of sulking and hunching moodily in corners. In the first two acts, his Heathcliff is an un educated dolt; heavy-footed, lumbering, and given to physical violence to express himself. Mattsey gets better later when his character returns with some education and gruff charm, but unfortunately, on the night I attended, his voice failed him in a few key spots. As hard as the audience wants to like these characters, the singers seem determined to thwart any sympathy.

American composer Carlisle Floyd has wrapped music admirably around the Bronte story. He gives the drama added intensity with a score that is timed to the characters' moments of passion, scorn, and rage. The music is stark and brooding, but for a contemporary piece (it was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 1958), it is multilayered enough to avoid sounding too strident or monotonous. The duet between Heathcliff and Cathy is quite beautifully written and sung, as is the quartet in the last act.

* `Wuthering Heights' closes at the Emerson Majestic Theatre tonight.

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