Composer: Charles Wuorinen
Librettist: Annie Proulx
Conductor: Kazem Abdullah
Director: Jacopo Spirei
Daniel Okulitch: Ennis del Mar
Glenn Seven Allen: Jack Twist
Heather Buck: Alma Beers
Hilary Ginther: Lureen
Christopher Job: Aguirre
Since all good things must come to an end, my last, but not least, performance of the season turned out to be Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain presented by New York City Opera as their 2nd annual pride series production at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater yesterday afternoon. In an ironic twist of fate, the opera should have been NYCO’s to produce and premiere to begin with, back when Gérard Mortier was supposed to take the company over. When that did not work out, he took it to Madrid’s Teatro Real, where it was produced and premiered in 2014.
Although I have not read Annie Proulx’s acclaimed short story, I had loved Ang Lee’s acclaimed film inspired by it (not the least, let’s face it, because of the two hot young actors that were Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal back then). So I was curious to check out what Annie Proulx, in her brand-new capacity as a librettist, and Charles Wuorinen, in his usual capacity as an unapologetically modern composer, would come up with, even if the New York audience would see the down-sized production specially adapted for the smaller stage of the Salzburg Festival. When it comes to intimate drama, less is actually often more.
Because we’ve come a long way, although admittedly still not remotely far enough, with gay rights, these days the intense love story between the two young cowboys in Wyoming does not seem as controversial as it used to be. That said, there is still plenty of juicy material waiting to be squeezed out for a sizzling opera. Resolutely discarding Ang Lee’s majestic scenery and heart-felt romanticism, Wuorinen decided to go back to the source for a more authentic and grittier operatic version of the story. And why not?
Although he takes his time to open up, and even then stubbornly remains the taciturn type, Ennis del Mar is the man squarely at the heart of the story, and eventually the last man standing. It is a challenging role, no doubt, and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who created it back in Madrid, handled it remarkably well, particularly distinguishing himself in the final soliloquy. His performance was appropriately understated, and still powerfully conveyed his uncontrollable confusion and panic when faced with his unspeakable desires.
Tenor Glenn Seven Allen was vocally bright and physically energetic as Jack Twist, the one who was ready to throw caution to the wind and live his life to the fullest with the one person he truly loved. But domestic bliss with Ennis, even modest and discreet, was not in the cards for him, and Allen was terrific at showing his frustration slowly but surely building up all the way to their explosive final confrontation.
Soprano Heather Buck was a genuinely sweet Alma Beers, who made her first appearance gleefully picking her wedding gown, only to ask for divorce later in the second act. That was, of course, an understandable reaction since in the meantime she had caught her husband Ennis passionately kissing another man, just before he casually suggested she catches up with her ironing while the two men would go on the first of their “fishing” trips.
In her smaller but note-worthy part, mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther used her impressive range to create a memorable Lureen, the rich, educated and extroverted girl who fell for the fearless rodeo man that was Jack, only to find out that he would never be able to fulfill all her needs.
All the numerous other peripheral characters benefited from strong singing and acting, and the chorus made a memorable impression during its short appearance near the end of the second act. From a vocal point of view, the performance was a total success.
The stage was minimalist, and the various rolling mini-sets, from Ennis and Alma’s plain kitchen to the cheap motel room in which Ennis and Jack reconnect in, were efficiently moved around while the background remained a screen on which images of the sky at different times of the day were projected. This, however, became a significant element mostly when the scenes took place on Brokeback Mountain itself, giving a hint of the wide-open space. In short, nothing was deliriously imaginative, but everything worked.
As the story was unfolding, the score was revealing itself as both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was an underlying darkness that was ubiquitous during the entire performance, as if there was no getting away from the reputedly evil mountain. You really did not need herd owner Aguirre to sing of its “dark power” in the opening scene to feel it. And when it occasionally slowed down and took the time to connect with the characters, the music was very effective at expressing their bewilderment, tension and exasperation.
However, its overall unforgiving complexity and occasional intellectual coldness - not to mention a dense libretto - often seemed at odds with the rugged landscapes and raw emotions the two men were dealing with. And while Wuorinen obviously took great pains to shape a lot of the vocal lines according to natural speech patterns, those often ended up being monotonous and unengaging, making even the random touches of laconic humor fall flat. But the orchestra played it valiantly under the baton of Kazem Abdullah in the pit and, with the outstanding singers on that stage, they managed to save the day.