The Review: NYC Opera’s Brokeback Mountain
Under the baton of conductor Kazem Abdullah, the opera by Charles Wuorinen, with a libretto by Annie Prouix brings to operatic life the love story between two Wyoming cowboys that Prouix so long ago brought forward in a sweet and simple short story. I’m guessing most at the New York City Opera has not come to see Brokeback Mountain because of this piece of fiction writing but because of that gorgeously crafted 2005 film directed with such poetic beauty by Ang Lee and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, and Michelle Williams. The opera, as directed by Jacopo Spirei (Wexford Festival’s I Pagliacci) resonates deeply, especially in the deep discomfort and isolation these two struggling men come face to face with up on that mountain over one summer. It’s strangely complex and harsh in sound, not the romantic or lush music and lyrics that I was imagining, but something that connects more to the hard life and sharp surfaces of that foreboding mountain that exists at its core. It rarely seems far away on the Rose Theatre stage as orchestrated by scenery and costume designer, Eva Musil (Salzberg State Theatre 2015-16) with appropriate flat and harsh lighting by designer Susan Roth (Robert Ward’s The Crucible). The two have crafted a somewhat clumsy vista to operate on, shoving and pulling on numerous set pieces that visually work and do the job but never float. I’m guessing a higher budget would have expanded the grace and ease of the transitions but all and all, the feel and textures do the piece justice and are rightly suited to the sound and dynamics presented. I wish it had more beauty in its vistas, but the roughness of the upfront with the wide expanse of sky behind seems relevant and maybe more in tune with the crushing score.
Tenor Glenn Seven Allen (Pontius Pilate in Casa Mañana’s Jesus Christ Superstar) is solid and perfectly cast, embodying the rodeo swagger of handsome Jack Twist and his wide-eyed optimistic desire for creating a world based on his true desire and passion. He is electrifyingly the center of attention on and off that mountain, drawing our eye as he positions himself with his Marlboro Man cocky stance that masks his need just below the surface. He is powerfully effective as the optimistic and eager young man, comfortable in his well toned skin, desperate to grab hold of the love he has finally harnessed and wants so much to hold on to. It’s an engaging and emotional performance that resonates lyrically and textually with an ease and power that gracefully jumps over the sometimes awkward lines that he has to sing.
The Canadian born Bass-Baritone Daniel Okulitch, who previously inhabited the role of Ennis Del Mar in Teatro Real, Madrid, finds the deeply defensive posturing in this simple man’s emotionality. He’s a man of few words, and although the libretto jumps widely around in intention and direction, he finds the true spirit of this sad lonely man and displays his pain with such clarity and resignation that our hearts break for him. That is until the final and sudden flourish of vulnerability and acceptance during his final aria. Draped in pain like the two shirts blood-stained in the closet, he wraps himself around the idea of Jake and holds him tight like the second skin he now has.
The others that fill out this impressive large cast are also exceptionally appropriate and well sung. Aguirre, sung by bass-baritone Chirtopher Job (Opera Fairbanks’ Die Zauberflöte) has just the right level of dismissal and distaste for Ennius and Jack. Glad to be rid of them for more reasons then their sheep handling skills. The two ladies in these cowboys’ lives register the exacting blend of love and disturbance needed to encompass the denial and engagement they both desire. Soprano Heather Buck (title role in Rihm’s Proserpina) as Alma Beers and Mezzo-Soprano Hilary Ginther (Philadelphia Opera’s MASS) as Lureen impress, although, as with most of this opera they are saddled with a libretto that doesn’t offer subtlety or ease in their transitions. At moments they both come off as posturing or harsh, whereas the film gave them much more opportunity for depth.
This might be the over-riding problem with this haunting Brokeback Mountain. And maybe this is one of the qualities that come out of translating such a well-known film drama to the operatic world. There seems to be an understanding that we know where this is going, and the plot doesn’t have to guide us there like a musical often does. This opera highlights moments of intense emotionality and jumps the deep ravines and crevices in this mountainous story. In the acceptance of these constructs, the edgy and powerfully haunting drama is unleashed mainly due to these two magnificent and magnetic cowboys at the center of this love story. There love is as deep and disturbing as this mountain is high and dangerous.