By James L. Paulk
NEW YORK – Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain has “come home” to New York City Opera, as Michael Capasso, the company’s general director, put it before the U.S. premiere at the Rose Theater on May 31. In some ways, the opera’s 10-year odyssey, and its resilience, mirrors that of NYCO. In 2008, Gerard Mortier, near the end of his reign as the “bold impresario” (New York Times) of NYCO, commissioned Wuorinen, America’s ranking modernist composer, to create an opera from Annie Proulx’s heart-wrenching 1997 tale of two cowboys burning with love. The spectacular success of Ang Lee’s 2005 movie adaptation, which won three Academy Awards, gave the project visibility. Months later, Mortier resigned after a bitter dispute. The company struggled on for five years before declaring bankruptcy in 2013.
Determined to bring the opera to fruition, Mortier took the project with him when he landed at Teatro Real in Madrid. It was to be his last great adventure: He died from cancer a few months after the Madrid premiere in 2014. A second production followed at Theater Aachen in Germany the same year. In 2016, the Salzburg Landestheater presented a third production using a chamber version of the score written by the composer. It is this production and version that came to NYCO, which reopened in 2016 under Capasso’s leadership, drastically reduced in scale but feisty and growing.
The story is set in Wyoming and Texas in the period from 1963 to 1983. The relationship between Ennis and Jack develops over a lonely summer as they herd sheep on a remote mountain. Both marry, but as they reunite for fishing trips over the years, Jack pleads for them to find a life together, especially after Ennis’s divorce. Ennis’ fear keeps him back until Jack’s death, when he realizes what he has lost.
Proulx herself wrote the libretto, her first. In a conversation at the New York LGBT Community Center a week before the performance, Wuorinen explained that he and Proulx disagreed with some of the sensationalism of the movie, which, for example, depicted the violent death of Jack instead of respecting the ambiguity in the original short story. Like the original, the opera focuses on what Wuorinen called the “essential tragedy of the story: Ennis’ failure to come to terms with who he is.”
To do this, Proulx added scenes, so many that I lost count. Her failure to pare down the text has turned the opera into a wordy talkfest lasting nearly two and half hours with intermission. Fortunately, the language is both authentic and poetic, with lines like Jack’s “I wish I knew how to quit you” and “you know, friend, this is a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation” and Ennis’ “If you can’t fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.”
Proulx’s adaptation turned out to be exactly what Wuorinen wanted. He set
most of the text as Sprechstimme (spoken on pitch), which allowed him both to maximize the number of words per minute and to be easily understood even without consulting the surtitles – something Wuorinen insisted was very important to him. But while Jack expresses himself with glib confidence and cowboy bluster, Ennis is taciturn and inarticulate in the first act. As he begins to understand himself, he finds his voice.
There are, as Wuorinen explained at the LGBT Community Center, three main characters – Jack, Ennis, and Brokeback Mountain – and he has given each a pitch. The “foundation note” for the mountain is C, a pitch also associated with death in much of music history. Jack’s pitch is B and Ennis’s is C sharp. “They have their respective domains,” Wuorinen explains, “but the mountain always lies between them. It denotes power and freedom but is also a menace.” The pitches also comment on sexual roles, C sharp being “on top” of B.
The opera opened with a sustained and foreboding low C, the mountain’s music, played in an undulating manner that suggested the primal opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold until it shifted into a snarling, grinding, atonal mix. It was the most strikingly beautiful element of the opera.
For the rest of the night, the orchestra busied itself with astringent harmonies, menacing brass, bursts of percussion, and lots of piano. Wuorinen says he prefers the chamber version. Having watched the Madrid production on video, I believe he has a point. In the chamber version, there are only six strings, among 24 instruments. The sound is gutsier and tougher. And despite the wicked intensity of the orchestral score, it never overpowers the singing, but underlines it, giving it a surreal beauty.
While reducing the orchestra enhanced the opera’s effectiveness, the same cannot be said for the frugal production by Jacopo Spirei. Movable rocky peaks suggest the mountain, first dominating the stage, then shrinking over the course of the evening. But with dozens of scene changes, the mountain peaks are constantly in motion, making space whenever cramped platforms, for the domestic scenes, are dragged in by stagehands. But Spirei directs his cast in utterly naturalistic performances.
Baritone Daniel Okulitch was stunningly effective in the demanding role of Ennis, which he also sang in the original Madrid production. A consummate actor, he was riveting, always convincing, with rustic good looks. As Jack Twist, Glenn Seven Allen combined a powerful tenor voice, bright and flexible, with tons of charisma. And he also is a looker.
The role of Jack’s nagging wife, Lureen, was deftly handled by mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther. Soprano Heather Buck was especially strong as Ennis’s wife, a role she had created in the Madrid production, and one that is more sympathetically drawn than in the movie.
It’s probably the director’s fault that Christopher Job came across as something of a cliché in the role of Aguirre, the cruel rancher who hires Jack and Ennis. And when Brian Kontes’ voice is heard later as the ghost of Lureen’s father warning her about Ennis – an awkward nod to the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni – the audience erupted in laughter, not the result intended.
Kazem Abdullah, who had conducted the Aachen performances, delivered a robust, nicely detailed reading of the score, with plenty of acid and sting progressing to wrenching emotion in the gripping finale. Jack is dead from what we suspect was a brutal homophobic murder. Discovering the bloody shirts from a fight that ended their first summer, which Jack had secretly saved, Ennis sings a poignant aria, pledging: “it was only you in my life, and it will always be only you.”
Many smart friends, including my seatmate, were disappointed that Wuorinen’s score was so relentlessly unsentimental, reversing the approach of the movie, which, despite moments of pandering and kitsch, was a potent work of art. But I think they’re missing the point. What makes Wuorinen’s opera a tour de force is precisely that it is not an operatic adaptation of the iconic movie.
Wuorinen and Proulx are telling a different story, a tragedy of forbidden love that mirrors Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. And as is the case with Tristan, the churning score finds resolution only at the end. It’s far from perfect. There is so much dialogue that it’s often hard to pay attention to the powerful sound coming from the orchestra, and that sound often seems repetitious. But Brokeback Mountain is a work of exceptional beauty – original and very moving.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.