It is sheer fate that Brokeback Mountain has seen its world première take place in Madrid. This project was born in 2007, three years before Gerard Mortier became the general director of the Teatro Real. At the time, he was still at the New York City Opera and, he recalls, he read an article in the New York Times that quoted Charles Wuorinen saying he was interested in turning Brokeback Mountain into an opera. Initially a short story by Pulitzer winner Annie Proulx, a film version by Ang Lee in 2005 turned the narrative into a Hollywood success. In fact, there is probably little need to devote any space to what the story is about. Wuorinen himself had seen the movie, and his interest caught the eye of Mortier, who offered to programme it in New York if Wuorinen would write it. When the Belgian left New York before the project was completed, he promised the composer that he would stage it wherever he went – a promise he also made to Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, which premièred at the Teatro Real almost exactly a year ago.

And so Brokeback Mountain opened in Madrid among unprecedented expectation – nearly a hundred international journalists requested accreditation for the occasion. Judging from the fixation, during the press conference, on the questions related to the alleged controversy of the story – the love between two men – one could think that there was some sort of morbid fascination to see how it would play out on a live stage. As Proulx herself said, and as the opera would clearly prove, there were no intentions to rock any boats. What we saw and heard was no risky endeavour.

Wuorinen is a prolific composer. Like Proulx also a Pulitzer winner thanks to Time’s Encomium, he has been composer-in-Residence for the San Francisco Symphony and has written music for the main orchestras in the US, his regular collaboration with James Levine a critical highlight. He is behind the foundation of the Group for Contemporary Music, which focuses on stimulating the performance of music that remains largely unknown in the US. Brokeback Mountain is his third opera, and his first stab at a tragedy.

It goes without saying that the very fact that opera composition is being supported in this time and age is commendable. The question remains, what is the kind of opera that the audiences of our time need and deserve?

The music Wuorinen has conceived attempts to portray the roughness of the story as much as the roughness of the landscape. Proulx has made no attempt to hide that the bucolic mountains we see in the movie are not exactly what she had in mind, or indeed what the Wyoming scenery looks like. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist’s summer jobs as sheep herders are not exactly a walk in the park, and Wuorinen’s music aims at depicting the dangers of their situation – in the broadest sense of the word. His music, however, never manages to be truly unnerving. If anything, it is too easy to listen to, its descriptive nature more clichéd than evocative. It is precisely this correctness that does not bode well with an oppressive story that badly requires something more harrowing.

The libretto is reportedly Proulx’s first dive into the operatic world. She has taken to heart the piece of advice that calls for opera libretti to be written in short sentences, and does this very effectively. Somehow, though, some of those phrases, devastating when embedded in her printed story, appear isolated as if coming out of the blue, and don’t quite ring true on the stage. Having felt ripped apart when reading the story, and keen to be taken through the excruciating journey again, it came as a bit of a disappointment to find out that the success in achieving the same level of emotional engagement was only partial.

That said, Jack and particularly Ennis brought back some of the glimpses of beauty of the book and managed to build a convincing relationship against all odds. Daniel Okulitch’s Ennis played the introvert cowboy whose love for Jack is too overwhelming to acknowledge, let alone accept. His journey really is the story to follow, and Okulitch took the audience with him. His was, deservedly, the longest ovation of the evening. The conception of his role smartly fits the personality of the character: initially he is given him very few, nearly spoken words, and it is only gradually that he finds his voice. The onus was entirely on him in the final scene, and he gave his all to a broken Ennis.

Tom Randle offered a contrasting Jack, a man who does not feel guilt or fear for loving Ennis. Randle infused his character with optimism and the determination to turn their desires into something workable. He got through the highly demanding role – the most musically intense – with no hesitation. His was the merit of showing the pointlessness and tragedy of Jack’s death. In the opera, there is a ghost – any opera that takes itself seriously has one, teased Wuorinen. The ghost is the father of Jack’s wife, Lureen, who tacitly promises that he will rid his daughter of her lousy husband. This adds an interesting reminiscence of the story Ennis tells Jack – a childhood trauma after his own father forces him to behold the corpse of a murdered man, killed for being in love with another man. One could almost infer that the ghost of Lureen’s father and orchestrator of Jack’s death might in fact be Ennis’ father coming back for revenge.

Lureen is one of two main feminine characters, correctly brought to life by Hannah Esther Minutillo. There are other smaller roles that do not bear much weight, though Jane Henschel is worth mentioning as Jack’s fragile and caring mother. Heather Buck gets a musically diabolic role as Ennis’ wife Alma. She is an effective singer and actress, but her role is, willingly or otherwise, morphed into a fussy, spoilt and moody woman, which goes diametrically against the spirit of a much more interesting character in the short story. In a scene conceived for the stage – it is not in the book – she tries on wedding dresses and, imagining her brighter future as a married woman, sings: “I want to have a phone, a princess phone”. The Alma in the original story was a real, intelligent woman with iron determination but little hope.

As a character of its own in this story, the force of a hostile nature is often illustrated through a brass- and percussion-loaded orchestra. Conductor Titus Engel squeezed the best out of the score, and also proved a reliable conductor for singers in an opera where things can easily go wrong. He was focused and alert, always aware of where his attention needed to be. Truly disconcerting was Ivo van Hove’s staging, with the ruthless mountains reduced to an image projected on a large screen. There is obviously nothing wrong with projecting images. Ironically, an excellent example of using images for truly powerful impact is Bill Viola’s projections in Tristan und Isolde, currently sharing the stage with Wuorinen’s opera. What we see here, though, are muted mountains that seem far away, elsewhere. The homes they come back to, in contrast, are a nicer creation, as is the idea of placing them side by side, close yet distant.

Overall, this world première neither caused as much outrage as some anticipated, nor triggered as much enthusiasm as others hoped. Still, for one evening, Madrid had a taste of what being the operatic capital of the world is like.