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16.7.10

Bernard Herrmann in Montpellier

The summer festivals are well under way in southern France, including the Festival de Radio France in Montpellier. One of the operas on the schedule is a particular favorite of mine, Wuthering Heights by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), whose most famous work is probably still the terrifying score to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (composer and film director pictured at right). Renaud Machart was there to review the concert performance (broadcast live on France Musique and available for online listening at their invaluable Web site), the first in France (Un opéra de Bernard Herrmann révélé à Montpellier, July 16), for Le Monde, an article which opens with an unexpected diatribe (my translation):
We remember being made red in the face, during a televised round table, by a colleague who, describing the music of an opera by Franz Schreker (1878-1934) given at the Salzburg Festival, had described it as "hollywoodienne." All he had done was regurgitate the old saw about the ultra-lyrical and lush music of many central European composers between the two world wars. If such music sounds "hollywoodienne," it is only because the classic sound of the best of American film music was invented by these composers, for the most part immigrants to the United States as a result of the Nazi threat, beginning in 1933. Some of them, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, were skilled composers who were famous and respected; others, like Franz Waxman (1906-1967), spent their royalties on festivals of European avant-garde music in Los Angeles. Many of them tolerated, against their will, the extreme demands imposed by the studios, which asked them to write on demand, at rapid speed, and with short deadlines! But the most gifted of them enjoyed the better part of a prince's income.
What does he think of the actual work?
But Bernard Herrmann was "Brooklyn Bernie" and not an exiled Jew. He surely had an inferiority complex in that his classical works never found real success. His difficult character did not help: when it came to staging his opera Wuthering Heights, written between 1943 and 1951 after the Emily Brontë novel, the composer obstinately refused to allow any cuts to be made in its three hours of music. The opera was staged only posthumously, in 1982 in Portland. Herrmann did manage to self-finance a concert performance, in England, followed by a recording. A few very rare copies (3 CDs, Unicorn Kanchana) can be purchased at premium prices through online sellers.
Machart likens the style of the score to the "English pastoral school (Delius, Bax, Vaughan Williams)" and ranks it of high quality, although he found the libretto lacking drama (Machart does not point out that it was written by the composer's first wife, Lucille Fletcher -- a bad idea from the start). Without a staging the work challenged its listeners, an already small audience reportedly leaving in droves at intermission. The performance, conducted by Alain Altinoglu, was excellent, according to Machart, especially an outstanding young mezzo-soprano from Montpellier named Marianne Crebassa, who even accompanied herself on the piano in the scene at the opening of the third act. If you have never heard this opera, you have 30 days or so to listen to the broadcast online through the France Musique Web site. Click on the little headphone symbol in the box headed by the word "(ré)écouter."

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