Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain
Earlier I'd read an in depth review for the DVD of this opera, its critic asking if a composer known primarily for writing "dense, angular, and discordant music," could adapt his style to fit this story. His response was a resounding, "no," citing a complete lack of tenderness or warmth between the two central characters.
Today I watched the DVD of Wuorinen's opera, and must admit to feeling quite differently from what I'd read. This may be, at least in part, because I didn't feel it necessary composer needed to adapt his style for any reason; this is the musical language he speaks and, in my opinion, speaks it very well.
Despite the romance at its heart, I don't see Brokeback Mountain as "just" a gay love story, and while I admired Mr. Lee's film, feel Proulx's story to be more of a period piece, set in a time not long ago where being queer could (and obviously did) get people killed.
These two men (particularly Ennis) live in perpetual fear of being discovered resulting in a chilling denial of who they are. They inhabit a world that, more frequently than not, terrifies the hell out of them. Wuorinen captures this world, as well as these boys' and emotions, with chilling expressiveness.
Where Jack (a marvelous portrayal from Tom Randle) imagines the pair of them starting a life and owning a ranch together, Ennis' is paralyzed by his fears to the point of inaction, watching his life dissolve right before him, impotent and rendered incapable of doing anything about it. Again, Wuorinen's score conveys all of this, brilliantly and with an appropriate, tragic gravitas. .
I've read assertions the creators do not allow us to witness any tenderness between the two men, either musically or dramatically. I disagree. To cite one example; their last night on the mountain opens with Jack standing alone, Ennis coming up from behind him, enveloping him in his arms, singing tenderly (including part of his wordless vocalise heard earlier). Here, he expresses his disappointment at having to leave Jack for the mountaintop, before being convinced to spend their one last night together. The staging here makes for great theatre and is filled with symbolic implications for all. We watch as the tent is lifted off of them as the stage transforms into the almost disjointed jumble that will be their lives for the next four years (and much of the rest of the opera).
While the score is typically angular and frequently dense, Wuorinen does provide beautiful moments to break up the harshness. Some feel such moments are too few, but they serve precisely what the composer and Ms. Proulx saw as their project, which is a different beast than the touching film from Mr. Lee. It is much closer to the author's original short story, which will not sit well for those who prefer the film's sentimentality. One of those moments is Jack and Ennis' final meeting, infinitely touching, as we witness frustration, grow into anger before transforming into an ultimate sense of foreboding; the realization that grief and continued loneliness shall be their only future they may share. Here, orchestra, singers, staging and libretto come together so masterfully I confess, I was, as Ennis later admits, choked with love." It's what (for me) opera is all about.
The remaining (rather large) cast, are fully committed to their (often) minor roles, with Heather Buck standing out as Ennis' young, frustrated wife, who over the course of their marriage reaches the point of no return. It's a tough sing with a lot of high notes and almost from the beginning, a fever pitch intensity. As Lureen Hannah Esther Minutillo, has a sometimes oddly accented English, but convey's her characters coolness and ambition convincingly. With probably the least amount of stage time, Jane Henschel turns in a touching portrayal of Jack's mother, her cameo feeling like a genuine star turn.
The final scene finds Ennis, alone at at the mountain, caressing their two shirts which Jack had secretly held onto for 20 years, pouring out his grief, admitting his great love, was emotionally shattering. You sense this man will be alone for whatever days he has left, the sentiment confirmed by his closing line, as those two shirts, along with any dreams or hopes, float away, upwards towards the peaks. "It was only you in my life, and it will always be only you. Only you. Jack, I swear." Here, after listening to all the density of orchestral layers building on top of one another, Wuorinen wisely ends the opera, with Jack holding one final, unaccompanied, ending his opera in silence. The effect is heartbreaking storytelling of the first order.
Towards the end of the review I'd earlier mentioned, its author of wrote:
"Thus, we are left with the message that love between men is no different from an encounter in a rough-n-ready porn flick, where grunts, slaps and lots of gritty sounds take the place of warmth, tenderness, and open-hearted embrace."
I felt no "porn" sensibility of any stripe at play here, the gentleness expressed between the dual protagonists being felt throughout the opera, a shocking counterpoint against the brutality of their realities. That warmth extended, too, through the final curtain as Mr. Okulitch, basking in a sea of applause, awaits his partner to join him, the two sharing a big embrace (how often do we see artists hugging during bows?) and a warm ovation.
I can see how Wuorinen's score, led here by Titus Engel, might be tough for some audiences to warm up to, but it is, in its often brutal way, beautiful, with the sense of the mountain felt strongly through the entire opera. .
I'd like to believe this score, and this fascinating production by Ivo van Hove, will be seen again on other stages, but whether that happens or not, am grateful for the commitment of Mr. Mortier the Teatro Real for producing it and the resultant DVD.
Hours later, I'm still a bit rattled by the experience, something I find the best of art always does to me.