When rehearsals of his new opera Wuthering Heights began early this month, Composer Carlisle Floyd set a standard for the cast: "I'd rather have you represent your parts well than sing well." This elevation of theatrics over music has enabled 32-year-old Composer Floyd to write one of the most dramatic of contemporary operasSusannah (TIME, Oct. 8, 1956). Last week the Santa Fe (N.Mex.) Opera premiered Floyd's latest work. Musically, Wuthering Heights was at least as good as its distinguished predecessor, but Librettist Floyd was not quite up to the job Composer Floyd had set for himself.
"Almost No Brontë." The commission (around $4,500), which spurred Floyd to write a "music drama" out of Emily Brontë's "eminently operatic" novel, came from Director John Crosby of the Santa Fe Opera, a year-old enterprise that runs an open-air theater in the "cultural capital of the Southwest." Floyd read the novel four times and came to a highly debatable conclusion: "I realized it's very badly written; I could use almost no Brontë dialogue. There's no immediacy to it; I had to do a creative job." The job, libretto then music took him twelve months.
The 2½-hour opera opens with a prologue showing the embittered Heathcliff as the master of the bleak moorland house of Wuthering Heights, flashes back to when he was an orphan boy living on the mean bounty of the Earnshaw family. It sketches Heathcliff's growing love for Cathy Earnshaw, his flight when he learns she is to be married to Edgar, a neighbor; his return to marry Edgar's sister and seize Wuthering Heights from Cathy's debt-ridden brother. The drama closes with a reconciliation between Heathcliff and Cathy as she lies dying.
Very Little Brine. The premiere glowed with the performances of Soprano Phyllis Curtin's surgingly passionate Cathy and Mezzo-Soprano Regina Sarfaty's portrayal of Nelly, the maid. The 36-ft.-wide stage often seemed too small to contain the action, and in his effort to achieve "immediacy," Floyd produced a libretto so cliché-ridden that it dissipated the briny sense of evil that hung over Novelist Brontë's book. But the sweeping, intricate score pulsed with moments of moving lyricism: Edgar's proposal to Cathy ("Make me whole again"), Cathy's "dream" aria in which she confesses her love of Heathcliff. Audience reaction was tepid; "I liked the movie better," said one mink-draped woman. But professionals in the audience cheered. Said Metropolitan Opera Board Member Howard J. Hook Jr.: "This puts the Met to shame. How come we let Santa Fe steal a march on us?"
This fall, Composer Floyd will go back to his teaching job at Florida State University after the profitable two-year absence that made his name in the operatic world. He is already casting about for other classic stories with the believable dramatic impact he thinks modern opera demands. Two favored choices: The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frame.