I’ve become a little wary of operas based on best selling novels and/or Hollywood films so I approached Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain with a certain amount of skepticism. I should not have. It’s a Gerard Mortier commission; originally for NYCO but, following that débacle, it followed him to the Teatro Real in Madrid where it premiered in 2014. The libretto is an adaptation by Annie Proulx of her original story. Always a good sign.
Two gay cowboys in Wyoming may seem an odd subject for an opera but it works pretty well. It was said of the film that the scenery stole the show. Obviously that’s not going to be the case in an opera which leaves more space for character development and that’s really what the opera is about; the psychology of the “other” in a closed society that is uncomprehending and hostile. Over twenty years two men confront their own nature while living overtly conventional lives. The society they live in is hostile, very hostile, to anybody different. It doesn’t seem to be any particular hostility to homosexuality per se as to anyone different. It’s surely important that the one character who is described as overtly religious, Pentecostalist even, is the one who shows some sign of understanding and sympathy. This happens right at the end when Ennis visits his dead lover’s parents ostensibly to scatter his ashes up the mountain. The mother gets it. The father is seething with anger because the family plot isn’t “good enough” for Jack. The other thing I liked about the libretto is that it doesn’t make fun of or satirize the ordinary people. As Wuorinen says in the bonus interviews it is “very easy to make fun of people who are defenseless”. Here they are treated as products of their environment. The contrast with the treatment of similar people in Turnage’s Anna Nicole is quite striking.
Wuorinen’s music is a serious modern score. This is not a pseudo-musical. It’s tough with atonal and dodecaphonic elements but also very beautiful and evocative. The overture is brooding; all low strings, low woodwinds and percussion. It’s the first time we hear the leitmotif for the mountain that will recur throughout. The writing for voice is quite interesting too. Jack, the extrovert who has come close to accepting his own nature, gets lyrically expressive, melodic music while Ennis, the more closeted of the two, only gradually progresses from sprechgesang to a more lyrical medium as he slowly, very slowly, comes to accept his own nature. Conductor Titus Engel does a good job of managing both the clarity and grandeur of the score.
The production, directed by Ivo van Hove, focusses heavily on the psychological relationships. The sets are mostly simple with effective use of Ansell Adams like photographs and giant sheep video projections where appropriate. Other set elements pop in or up as needed and there’s a certain amount of “split screening”. It keeps things moving along and, on DVD, the two hours seem to pass without any breaks or transitions.
Jack and Ennis, the two cowboy lovers, are played by Tom Randle and Daniel Okulitch respectively. These are very fine performances. Randle in particular seems to convey the changes wrought by twenty years of secretive relationship very effectively. There is excellent support from their wives played respectively by Hannah Esther Minutillo (who rather curiously eschews the “western american” diction used by the other characters for something more cosmopolitan) and Heather Buck. There’s a large cast of supporting characters including Jane Henschel in a cameo as Jack’s mother. The chorus’ brief involvement is curiously Iberian.
Video direction, by Jérémie Cuvillier, is almost entirely unobtrusive and both video and sound quality on DVD are very good. The surround track has particular good bass extension which is a definite help with this music. There is one peculiarity about the video. Although the box describes the aspect ratio as standard 16:9, it actually appears to be letterboxed to a decidedly non-standard 2.14:1. No idea why! There’s also a Blu-Ray release. There is a 20 minute bonus feature featuring interviews with the creative team plus Randle and Okulitch. It’s definitely worth watching. The booklet is a bit thin with a track listing and an almost incomprehensible synopsis. Subtitle options are English, French and Spanish.
This is a very serious work; heavy even. It won’t please everyone but opera fans who, like Wuorinen, admire Berg and Schoenberg, will find much to like here and the recording does the work full justice.