Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Wuorinen - Brokeback Mountain

Charles Wuorinen - Brokeback Mountain

Teatro Real, Madrid - 2014

Titus Engel, Ivo van Hove, Daniel Okulitch, Tom Randle, Heather Buck, Hannah Esther Minutillo, Ethan Herschenfeld, Celia Alcedo, Ryan MacPherson, Jane Henschel, Hilary Summers, Letitia Singleton, Gaizka Gurruchaga, Vasco Fracanzani

Medici, ARTE Concert - Internet Streaming, 7 February 2014

Although it goes right back to the source short story, and even has a libretto specifically written by the original author Annie Proulx, the initial idea to compose an opera based on Brokeback Mountain came to Charles Wuorinen after watching Ang Lee's 2005 film. It's likely that the popular and acclaimed film will also be the point of comparison for most people viewing Wourinen's opera version, the work receiving its world premiere in Madrid in 2014. As with any adaptation of material from another medium, the opera version of Brokeback Mountain in such a case must not only stand up on its own terms but it needs to bring something new, something specific to the nature of music theatre that literature and cinema can't. Wourinen's opera succeeds in this to a large extent and does full justice to the nature if the story, if not in any way bring anything spectacularly new to it.

In terms of the content, while Annie Proulx does go back to the source material and treats some aspects rather differently from the cinematic version, the nature, the character and the development of the relationship at the centre of the story remains essentially the same. It deals with the troubled love affair between two men in an American mid-western cowboy community who are unable to openly express their feelings for each other, partly due to concerns about how their relationship will be viewed by a society with rather harsh and unforgiving attitudes to anything that doesn't fit in with their accepted conventional moral views, but partly due to their own masculine inability to come to terms with their emotions.

Those feelings and the contrasting views on this subject in Annie Proulx's story are very much tied into the contrast between life on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming where ranch hands Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar first meet, and the rather less freedom that the men enjoy when they come down from summer on the isolated mountain and have to fit into "normal" society again, finding work, marrying and providing for their families. In the opera version, the concision and compression of the material in Proulx's libretto gives greater prominence and emphasis to this division between the laws of nature and society, but it's also given additional weight through Charles Wuorinen's very distinctive musical treatment.

The tone that is adopted by the work as a whole is established immediately right from the first bold, dramatic, troubling chords that are struck, and there's not an ounce of sentimentality, romanticism or even false optimism to be found elsewhere in the music score or the dialogue. Right from the outset, the relationship between Jack and Ennis is a troubled one, one that will never be fully accepted by either society or on equal terms by both men, and it colours and deeply affects even those few moments of bliss that the two of them are able to snatch together over the years on the rare occasions that they are able to "go fishing" on Brokeback Mountain. Proulx's concisely drawn libretto authentically reflects both the sparse exchanges and general inarticulacy of the men themselves, yet is also able to use literary techniques to draw out the underlying characteristics of their relationship.

As suggested by the location and the title, the primary expression of the men's relationship is that of Brokeback Mountain. The libretto consequently is scattered with references to the natural world, but reflecting the nature of that relationship it's rarely comforting, the mountains populated with coyotes, wolves and bears. For the brief moments that they are far away from the ordinary cares of the world, they are however eagles, at least in Jack Twist's mind. Ennis however, mindful of the responsibilities placed on him, knowing that he is going to marry Alma, finds it more difficult to enjoy the same freedom of thought, but allows himself to succumb to the image of the free-flying hawk. Another highly evocative image - although it's not over emphasised - is that of the sheep. In a way, the sheep could be seen to represent regular society, and since they are employed to look after them by Aguirre, a man who we know is a stickler for rules, the two men feel some obligation of responsibility towards the social construct that allows them to make a life for themselves.

On its own, this leaner this more stripped down version of the storyline expresses the intensity of the relationship and feelings well, but for it to find full expression in an opera it needs the music and the staging to support it. In this particular work, what remains unspoken is often just as important as what is, and that has to be elaborated on further than just a few poetic images and references to nature. The American composer Charles Wuorinen manages to find a strong way to express this in the music which is 12-tone and modernist but not atonal. Without impressionism or abstraction, it's actually quite lyrical and expressionistic, well-suited to the material, the musical language not unlike the Richard Strauss of Elektra and Salome. It's never folk or country inflected, but rather directly connected to the tenseness of the situation, to the uneasy nature of the men and their relationship, matching and underlining every word and sentiment.

As such, the music follows the vocal line rather than setting it, attempting to capture the rhythms of English-language speech patterns, as well as the halting delivery and uncertainty of the nature of the underlying sentiments they are expressing. Daniel Okulitch as Ennis and Tom Randle as Jack deal exceptionally well with this type of expression, totally convincing in terms of characterisation while managing to make the singing quite lyrical and melodic. These are strong performance indeed, and they need to be. As Alma, Heather Buck's role is no less important to the development of the drama and she also gives a terrific performance. Using projections to open up the Teatro Real stage for the outdoors scenes that allow for moody silhouettes, and closing it down with the clutter of furniture and household appliances, Jan Versweyveld's sets match Ivo van Hove's note perfect direction of the characters.

Likely to be seen now as Gérard Mortier's legacy as the controversial but hugely creative and experimental artistic director of the Teatro Real in Madrid, the World Premiere production of Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain was streamed live on the ARTE Concert and Medici websites. The opera is currently still available to view on both sites, in English with English subtitles.