Notes and Editorial Reviews
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If ever there were a story that deserves cinematic and operatic treatment, it is Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. A story of impossible, forbidden (read: homosexual) love set against the mountains of the American West in 1963, it is picturesque and sentimental by definition–the stuff of cinema and opera. Ang Lee’s 2005 film was a marvelous, handsome tear-jerker and Proulx’s message came across clearly. For the opera, which debuted in Madrid in 2014 whence this video was made, it was wise for Proulx to write the libretto–who better?
Asking multi-award winning composer Charles Wuorinen to write the music–the choice was
intendant Gerard Mortier’s–was risky: while the dark opening of the opera bodes properly ill, Wuorinen’s music is invariably interesting and well-crafted but angular and impossible to warm up to. If one feared that it would be goopy and artificially sweet, that fear is crushed in the first 10 minutes: the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky come to mind far sooner than the bathos–or pathos–of Puccini, a bit of which this work could have used.
The orchestration is sparse, making the text easy to follow, but the music never succeeds in creating the solid–or even occasional–undercurrent of sadness the text needs. What one hopes will take the place of warmth and empathy in Wuorinen’s musical vocabulary–desolation, perhaps, or a sense of desperation–creates a chill instead. In the film–and the book–Ennis’ final moments are sad in the extreme; here, there are some light orchestral observations, a tormented string or woodwind stab in place of softness. It’s best when the instruments drop out, leaving only Ennis’ voice. It’s an opportunity missed. In addition, as it turns out, Proulx’s text is too wordy–more-so than the film’s dialogue–as if she’s trying to explain more than is needed.
Jan Versweyveld has created a set that uses projections and videos (by Tal Yarden) of (the Wyoming?) mountains that are sometimes black and white, sometimes vaguely tinted; the tents, back-lit for the initial love scenes, are effective. Back home for each of the men we get half-empty rooms in wall-less homes with unappealing furnishings. Ivo Van Hove’s direction is telling and courageous; the love scenes are well-handled, the men move naturally, their push-pull feelings made absolutely clear. The men’s final meeting, at which they silently realize that their lives will be filled with frustration, is very moving.
Daniel Okulitch and Tom Randle as Ennis and Jack (respectively) show us trepidation, anguish, and yearning, the warm baritone of one handsomely played against the tenor of the other. And they are good to look at as well, giving off virility laced with love that is not in Wuorinen’s music. The only other character that comes to life is Alma, Ennis’ confused and then enraged wife, and Heather Buck is excellent in the role. The others are mainly plot points, although Jane Henschel, as Jack’s mother, tells us much about unadulterated love.
Titus Engel leads the ensemble with understanding and great feeling for the music and text. If only Wuorinen’s music were more interested in our feelings. Both picture and sound are superb; subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish. A 20-minute bonus features brief interviews with composer, librettist, and singers.
-- Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Brokeback Mountain by Charles Wuorinen
Hannah Esther Minutillo (Alto),
Tom Randle (Tenor),
Heather Buck (Soprano),
Daniel Okulitch (Bass Baritone),
Ethan Herschenfeld (Bass),
Jane Henschel (Mezzo Soprano),
Celia Alcedo (Soprano)
Madrid Teatro Real Orchestra,
Madrid Teatro Real Chorus
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