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In Review > North America

Brokeback Mountain

NEW YORK CITY
New York City Opera
5/31/18

In Review Brokeback hdl 818
Glenn Seven Allen and Daniel Okulitch in NYCO’s Brokeback
© Sarah Shatz

A DECADE AFTER New York City Opera announced its plan to mount Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain, the company presented the opera’s North American premiere at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 31. The performance proved that the company has the resources to produce Wuorinen’s startlingly effective opera about Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, two gay cowboys whose love flies in the face of social norms in 1960s Wyoming.

In June 2008, Gerard Mortier, then the general manager and artistic director of NYCO, announced that Wuorinen had accepted an invitation to compose an opera based on “Brokeback Mountain,” a short story by Annie Proulx published in The New Yorker in 1997. The Wuorinen opera was scheduled to have its NYCO premiere in the spring 2013 season. But just a few months after the Wuorinen commission was announced, Mortier and NYCO parted ways, after the company failed to come up with an operating budget sufficient to support Mortier’s ambitious artistic planning. Mortier accepted a new position, as artistic director at the Teatro Real in Madrid, and took Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain with him. City Opera declared bankruptcy in 2013. Michael Capasso, the newly revived company’s general director, welcomed the opening-night audience from the stage and alluded, with some humor, to the company’s complicated history with the work. 

Observers familiar with Ang Lee’s 2005 Oscar-winning film adaptation of the story—which offered Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal looking clean cut and handsome against inviting and majestic landscapes—may leave Wuorinen’s opera scratching their heads. The opera is arid and threatening, with atonal flourishes that rise to treacherous peaks before dissipating in the mountain air. The composer has pointed out that he based his piece on Proulx’s short story, with its bleak tone and rugged characters, and not on the film. Proulx also wrote the opera’s libretto.

In the opera, the mountain is practically a character unto itself, and not a nice one. Its humming, groaning and vibrating sounds, often scored for the lowest reaches of the piano with tuba, bass and contrabassoon, resonate in the listeners’ bodies and pull them into the danger that Brokeback represents. It’s not an idyllic escape; rather, it looms as an ever-present warning that Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist live in a hostile environment that will strangle their love at the root. 

Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who created the role of Ennis Del Mar in the work’s 2014 world premiere, reprised his part with meticulous attention to the score and the character’s struggle against himself. Ennis sings in Sprechstimme—an inspired touch for a character who cannot express his true feelings—and Okulitch executed the speech-singing masterfully. It is only after Jack’s unexpected death—which Ennis imagines as a brutal gay bashing—that Ennis finds the words and the music to express his love. Okulitch delivered the final monologue with reserves of beautiful tone that pierced the heart. American tenor Glenn Seven Allen had the ideal profile to play Jack—easygoing and charismatic, with a bright voice that traveled through the theater with a spring in its step. 

Soprano Heather Buck sang the role of Ennis’s long-suffering wife, Alma, with sensitivity and pathos, and Hilary Ginther used her strong lyric mezzo-soprano to portray Jack’s wife, Lureen, as a steely, business-minded Texan.

Conductor Kazem Abdullah was a rock for his cast and orchestra, organizing the controlled chaos of changing time signatures, dry and dissonant harmonies and atonal vocal lines into a compelling whole. He also did a heroic job cueing the singers in the difficult-to-follow score.

Jacopo Spirei’s production had the moment-to-moment intensity of a film and used Eva Musil’s partially composed stage settings—e.g., two slopes of a mountain or half of a door frame—to emphasize Jack and Ennis’s fractured lives. Several of the supporting singers—Melissa Parks (the bartender), Sarah Heltzel (the saleswoman) and Kevin Courtemanche (Jack’s father)—created entire worlds for their characters to inhabit out of a handful of lines.  —Oussama Zahr 



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