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WUORINEN: Brokeback Mountain

spacer Buck, Minutillo; Randle, Okulitch; Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Real de Madrid, Engel. Production: Van Hove. BelAir Classiques BAC111, 130 mins., subtitled

Video Brokeback Mountain DVD COver 815

Charles Wuorinen’s opera Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story about two cowboys in love, had its world-premiere production in January 2014 at the Teatro Real in Madrid, where this performance was recorded. The tone of the opera, which has an idiomatically well-suited libretto by Proulx, is quite different from that of Ang Lee’s 2005 Oscar-winning film adaptation; Wuorinen surrounds us with impending doom right from the start, with ominous low-C ground tones in the orchestra, and the tension rarely subsides for the entire two-hour work. The composer achieves his pointed, unsettling effects by way of an acerbically dissonant musical language, with orchestral writing that is by turns skittery, growling and furiously thundering. 

Wuorinen has set the prose libretto in a manner that follows the natural contours of speech. Occasionally there are flashes of lyricism that transcend mere musicalized conversation, but the work doesn’t really flower melodically until about twenty minutes in — with Jack’s “I can see his fire,” as he gazes at Ennis across the mountain toward the base camp — and only sporadically thereafter. Still, Wuorinen’s astringent musical approach communicates both the physical dangers of the mountain terrain and the doomed nature of the love between the two men. While Gustavo Santaolalla’s Oscar-winning score for the movie supplied tenderness during the love scenes, Wuorinen provides controlled chaos and raging menace.

Not all opera singers can deliver a vernacular American libretto without sounding silly, but Tom Randle as Jack and Daniel Okulitch as Ennis manage quite impressively. Randle supplies exuberance, a bright, glowing tenor and effortless cowboy swagger, while Okulitch’s gruff bass-baritone expresses a great deal in the compressed utterances Wuorinen and Proulx have written for Ennis. Okulitch is flat-out brilliant in his final, agonizing solo scene, in which Ennis overflows with love, pain and regret.  

As their wives, Heather Buck and Hannah Esther Minutillo fare less well. Buck’s part is somewhat thankless — the high, relentlessly dissonant vocal writing makes her sound shrewish and unsympathetic, although she is impressive in her angry, virtuoso confrontation with Randle over his revealingly unused fishing line. The Czech-born Minutillo, though possessed of a lithe, consistently attractive mezzo, seems out of place with her accented English and opera-singer delivery.

Director Ivo van Hove’s imaginative and dramatically lucid production, as perfectly captured for DVD by Jérémie Cullivier, features authentic sets by Jan Versweyveld for the domestic interiors and impressive mountain-vista backdrops for the exteriors, enhanced by Tal Yarden’s video projections.  The musicians of the Orchestra Teatro Real de Madrid play their fearsomely difficult parts with startling precision and transparency; Titus Engel conducts with complete mastery. Wuorinen’s approach was not the obvious one, but it certainly succeeds on its own terms. spacer

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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