In Review > International

Brokeback Mountain

MADRID
Teatro Real
1/28/14

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Tom Randle (Jack Twist), Hilary Summers and Daniel Okulitch (Ennis Del Mar) in Ivo van Hove's production of Brokeback Mountain for the Teatro Real
© Javier del Real/Teatro Real 2014
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Tom Randle and Daniel Okulitch as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar in Charles Wuorinen's opera adaptation of Brokeback Mountain
© Javier del Real/Teatro Real
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Heather Buck as Alma, with Daniel Okulitch
© Javier del Real/Teatro Real 2014

At one of the many press events surrounding the January 28 world premiere of Brokeback Mountain at the Teatro Real, American tenor Tom Randle, who created the role of Jack Twist in Charles Wuorinen's opera, confessed that he had never seen Ang Lee's Oscar-winning 2005 film of Annie Proulx's 1997 short story. "But somebody told me we were more handsome," Randle added. The Spanish-language translator, seated next to the tenor, said, "You sure are," and everybody laughed, creating a mood of elation that seemed to linger on the following night at the opera's first performance.

Representatives of more than 100 international media outlets and more than a dozen opera companies were present at the Teatro Real (an absolute record for opera in Spain) for the Brokeback premiere. Gerard Mortier, the innovative impresario who brought this world premiere to the Spanish capital, looked seraphic and relaxed. Mortier was removed from his position as artistic director of the Teatro Real in autumn 2013, but the theater's current season remains pure Mortier; his title may now be "artistic advisor" for the company, but Mortier received the royalty of the opera world as if he were still in charge.

The opera by Wuorinen and Proulx is admirable, but is not the masterpiece that the original story is. In Proulx's libretto and Wuorinen's score, everything is under control; the piece is more a triumph of craft than an expression of passion — a state of affairs that may be both the principal virtue and the principal flaw of this Brokeback. Many in the first-night audience had seen the previous evening's Tristan und Isolde, offered in the multimedia staging by Peter Sellars and Bill Viola. It was Mortier's deliberate choice to combine these stories of doomed passion, but Brokeback Mountain suffered in comparison to Wagner's masterpiece. If an overblown Romantic opera from the heart of the nineteenth century can still make one cry, one would hope that a timely, important love story of our own era, told in today's language, would be at least as engaging. But the restraint of the Brokeback Mountain libretto and score — as well as the clean, cool production by Ivo van Hove — kept the public involved but unmoved by the tragedy of Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, the two Wyoming cowboys who fall in love. 

Proulx's libretto, her first, showed a professional command of the language of theater but also an understandable unfamiliarity with operatic needs: as librettist, Proulx was perhaps too close to her own story to achieve the sustained expression of anything resembling arias. Much of Proulx's dialogue came directly from the story (as did much of Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana's script for the Lee film). In the few moments when Proulx's text diverges from the plainspoken, idiomatic way of speech of two Wyoming cowboys, the opera acquires much-needed emotional weight, but this happens far too seldom. 

Wuorinen tells a very persuasive story that starts in a very promising way: as in the beginning of Das Rheingold, in the first bars, the Orchestra of the Community of Madrid, vibrant and alert under the baton of new-music specialist Titus Engel, describes the harsh, menacing Wyoming landscape. A prolonged low note expands to dialogue with a video projection of the riveting mountain range that stage director van Hove and his team filmed in Wyoming itself. 

In the harsh landscape of Brokeback Mountain the opera, there is not a moment of joy or a single singable melody. Wuorinen's score is always intriguing: the opera, which was presented without intermission in a single act of two hours, remains edgy, dust-bitten and muscular. It never sounds sentimental or falls into the trap of faux-Western-sounding melody. The vocal lines use the natural inflexions of American English. The brief instrumental interludes describe a threatening mental and physical landscape with a combination of atonal orchestral outbursts and chamber-like ruminations. 

Van Hove and his set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld represent the stunted emotional world of the doomed cowboys by confining much of their interaction within a box. The story moves from Brokeback Mountain, where Jack and Ennis fall in love, to their homes in Wyoming and Texas, where they raise unhappy families, to the fine final scene in the home of Jack's parents. Ennis visits them after his lover's death and finds the relic of his passion with Jack (their shirts united in a symbolic embrace). In a case of true luxury casting, the brief role of Jack's understanding mother was sung by the fabulous mezzo Jane Henschel. 

Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulich offered a well-judged, multi-layered portrait of Ennis, troubled, hardworking and conservative; Okulitch used his beautiful, mellow voice with genuine feeling, especially in the impressive final monologue. Tom Randle, who has a high, quick, wiry tenor, was almost in the same league as Okulitch and showed a commendable rapport with his costar. 

Heather Buck and Hannah Esther Minutillo delivered with conviction the ungrateful roles (and difficult vocal writing) of the wives of Ennis and Jack, respectively. Ethan Herschenfeld lent his imposing stage presence and basso profondo to the sheep owner Aguirre and to the ghost of Jack's father — a surprising "operatic" addition, one of the few moments at which the opera diverges from the original story. 

The premiere went swiftly and smoothly, presented an important new work on a controversial subject in the best possible light and confirmed the clear artistic compass and brave spirit of Gerard Mortier, an artistic director who will be vastly missed in Madrid. spacer

ROBERTO HERRSCHER

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10