Monday, May 25, 2015

Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain

When it first appeared on DVD I'd read an in depth review of Charles Wuorinen's new 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 answer was a resounding, "no," citing a complete lack of tenderness or any sense of warmth between its two central characters. I finally was able to find the time to watch it and found the question to be, at least from my perspective, entirely irrelevant as I don't believe it was necessary for the composer to adapt his style for any reason whatsoever; this is the musical language in which he speaks, and he speaks it very well.

Despite the romance at its heart, I don't see Brokeback Mountain as simply a gay romance, and while I admired Mr. Lee's film, feel Proulx's story to be more of a period piece tragedy, set in a time not so long ago where simply being queer could (and obviously did) get people killed.

These two men, particularly Ennis, live in perpetual fear of being discovered which results 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 their myriad emotions, with chilling conviction and an almost painful expressiveness.

Where Jack (a marvelous portrayal from Tom Randle) imagines the pair starting a life and owning a ranch together, Ennis is almost completely paralyzed by his fear, to the point of inaction, as he watches his life dissolve before his eyes, impotent, angered and rendered incapable of doing a goddamn thing about it. Again, Wuorinen's score conveys all of this as it cuts, brilliantly, to the bone with an appropriate, tragic gravitas.

More than one critic has asserted the opera's creators never allow 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 finally being convinced to spend one last night together. The staging here makes for great theatre and is filled with symbolic implications for all. The tenderness is interrupted as we watch as the tent lifted off of them and witness the stage transform into the disjointed jumble that will be their lives for the next four years (and much of the rest of the opera).

While the score is in his typically angular and frequently dense style, Wuorinen does provide beautiful moments which break up the harshness. While some feel such moments are too few, they serve precisely what the composer and Ms. Proulx saw as their project; creating a different beast entirely than that of Mr. Lee's touching film, much closer to the original short story. This works against the opera for those who prefer the film's sentimentality. One such moment is Jack and Ennis' final meeting. Infinitely touching, we witness their frustration, growing into anger, before transforming into an ultimate sense of accepted foreboding; a realization that grief and loneliness shall be the only future they will share. Here, orchestra, singers, staging and libretto join 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 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 the mountain, caressing their two shirts, Jack having secretly held onto them for 20 years. Pouring out his grief, Ennis admits his great love in as shattering an emotional climax as any Greek tragedy. One senses this man will be alone for whatever days he has left, this sentiment confirmed by his closing line, as those two shirts, along with any dreams or hopes that may have been, float away, upwards towards the peaks of that mountain. "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 note, unaccompanied, ending the opera in silence. The effect is heartbreaking storytelling of the highest order.

Towards the end of one review its author 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 felt throughout, 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 throughout 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.

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