The Opera Now Available on DVD and Blu ray
Charles Wuorinen is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer who loved Ang Lee’s 2005 film, “Brokeback Mountain” and found it inspiring—so much so that he approached Annie Proulx, the original author of the story with the idea of turning it into an opera and to ask for her okay on it. Proulx surprised him completely when she offered to write the libretto. Wuorinen knew that the story had the makings of a tragic opera and he saw the concept of same/sex love as representative of some of the techniques used by classic operas. Work on the opera began in August 2008 and completed in February 2012.
Wuorinen saw “Brokeback Mountain” as “a struggle toward the possibility of expression, about a groping toward language and awareness and self-knowledge. “I take the position that since it takes a long time for any word to get out, that what is laconic on the page can seem quite expansive on the opera stage.” The opera had its world premiere on January 28 2014 in Madrid and was directed by Ivo van Hove and the orchestra was conducted by Titus Engel. It is relatively short as operas go running two-hours opera with no intermission.
Wuorinen used Schoenberg’s half-sung, half-spoken “Sprechstimme” as a way for the character of Ennis to express himself in the first part of the opera. He does not actually sing until Act II and that is because he was unable to acknowledge who he was until later. Wuorinen understood that he could support Proulx’s idea through his music, but also that he needed a great formal conception to avoid sentimentalism. He thought that the film was “rather sentimental” and he wanted to use , the essential dimension of Annie Proulx’s fabulous story. Thus his Brokeback is rugged and wild like the landscape that shapes the lives of the characters.
In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini described it as “a serious work, an impressive achievement. But it is a hard opera to love.” He further said that Wuorinen had written “an intricate, vibrantly orchestrated and often brilliant score that conveys the oppressiveness of the forces that defeat these two men” but he also suggested that the complexity of his music at times weighed down the drama. The production was described as “starkly beautiful”. Proulx gave Ennis a “kind of plain-spoken elegance” in the libretto and she opened her original story. Ennis becomes somewhat reflective after he and Jack have their first sexual encounter and sings “We look down on them hawks./We look down on them pine trees./We’re like eagles, Jack.” Andrew Clements of “The Guardian” said that the music was rather dry and “etiolated” and seldom “transcends the text enough to enhance the drama rather than just adding rather terse punctuation and commentary to it. The performances of the singers and orchestra were excellent”, but he thought it should have been staged with a more spare setting. He added that he felt that Proulx had added too many elements to the libretto, clouding the plot and they clouded the plot.
“Brokeback Mountain” is the very sad tale of the impossible love between two Wyoming cowboys and the composer was enchanted with it. It is a serious work, an impressive achievement. But it is a hard opera to love. The score is intricate, vibrantly orchestrated and brilliant It totally conveys the oppressiveness of the forces that defeat these two men, whose lives we follow over 20 years, starting in 1963, when they take a summer job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. However the same qualities that are attractive and that captivate the audience also weigh on the drama. There is no melodrama or fake sweetness here and we kind of wish there were songs to convey the happiness of the two men, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar.
In Proulx’s libretto, she opens up the story line and, now and then, lends poetic elegance to the dialogue. In the original short story, Ennis is defined by his inarticulate ways: He mostly speaks in short, stunted phrases. In the libretto, he sometimes speaks with a kind of plain-spoken elegance. After he and Jack have their first impulsive sexual experience, Ennis becomes unusually reflective and this is a poignant touch, matched by a fleeting burst of lyricism in Mr. Wuorinen’s vocal writing.
“Brokeback” opens hauntingly with a low, droning pedal tone in the orchestra, over which dashes of music emerge, swell and fade away. In his score, Wuorinen strives to show that the mountain terrain of Wyoming is a dangerous region where one can easily die from sudden hail, bitter cold, precipitous cliffs or attacking animals. In the opening scenes, the mountains are seen as flowing and ominous videos, shot in Wyoming. Every member of the cast uses every moment to make the opera more lyrical. Daniel Okulitch is Ennis—he is tall and handsome and he is the character that he plays. Wearing the cowboy hat cocked on his head, he walks nervously and haltingly onto the stage speaking his early lines. We have to wait for Jack and Ennis to be together before we hear him sing. Tom Randle, a tenor is Jack, a man who knows what he wants and does not hesitate to request it. He wants Ennis to do the same but he is unable to do so. The scenes of the two bare-chested men in bed together are tender and natural.
An addition to the story is that Alma, Ennis’s wife, gets an introductory scene that is not in the story or the film. We see her bright and hopeful as she shops for a wedding dress with her mother and spends more than the meager family budget allows. As sung by soprano Heather Buck, we see Alma is an impulsive young woman who thinks the sullen Ennis may actually be her means of escaping ranch life and living properly in town. She is not stupid, however and she learns the truth about her husband. Mezzo-soprano Hannah Esther Minutillo is the tough-talking, college-educated and ambitious Lureen, Jack’s wife.
In one scene when Jack is dead, Ennis, now alone, holds two old shirts, his and Jack’s, bloodied from a fight they had during their last night that first summer, shirts that Jack kept, in secret, for 20 years. Ennis sings an emotional soliloquy. You cannot imagine the Ennis of the short story, or the film, saying what is sung here—“It was only you in my life, and it will always be only you.” But this is opera, and Wuorinen gives Ennis an extended passage of disarming lyrical elegance. If only there had been more such passages.
No matter how striking the music is, it sometimes recalls late Schoenberg, sometimes serial Stravinsky, but it rarely transcends the text enough to enhance the drama rather than just adding rather terse punctuation and commentary to it. The tenebrous opening certainly signals the tragedy that is to come, but when it does, with Jack’s death almost two hours later, there’s nothing to deliver the gut wrench needed; Ennis’s final monologue merely hints at the expressive world the music might have explored.
There are way too many words. Proulx’s original short story is a model of economy and where many librettists pare down their sources, Proulx expands hers by adding explanations and back story, even whole scenes.
The relationship between Ennis and Jack is never quite as movingly believable as it ought to be, even in Ennis’s final farewell to Jack and to the life they might have had together, even with Okulitch’s careful delivery. Yet it cries out to be seen and heard and it is certainly a wonderful addition to LGBT culture.