Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain, with a libretto by Annie Proulx, based on her 1987 short story, has finally had its American première. New York City Opera had originally commissioned the work a decade ago, when Gerard Mortier was supposed to take the reins of the company. When the plans fell apart, Mortier revived the commission for Madrid’s Teatro Real where the opera had its world première in 2014.

Daniel Okulitch (Ennis Del Mar) and Glenn Seven Allen (Jack Twist) © Sarah Shatz
Daniel Okulitch (Ennis Del Mar) and Glenn Seven Allen (Jack Twist)
© Sarah Shatz

One should certainly hope that deciding to present the opus now, the leaders of NYCO were considering the opera’s merits, not just the need to fill a slot in the company’s “Pride Initiative”, meant to produce one LGBT-themed work every season. In a recent interview, the composer reiterated that the story (two young ranch hands, Ennis and Jack, who are hired to tend sheep on an isolated mountain, fall in love and then struggle for twenty years to find a way to be together) is not about “poor, oppressed, gay people”. For the composer the real subject of the opera is the inability to fully acknowledge one’s own emotions and true nature and, even more, to communicate.

The four-performance run did not bring to New York the original production but a “chamber version”, first seen in Salzburg in 2016. Jacopo Spirei’s mise-en-scène is rather drab and Eva Musil’s scenery and costumes don’t add too much sparkle either. The mythical Brokeback Mountain is represented by one or two papier-mâché slopes and a blurry picture in the background. The shepherds’ base camp with its ridiculous-looking tent and too evident stairs evades any shade of Romanticism. The interiors of homes, motels and offices, open boxes rolled around by stagehands, do have a suitable Hopper-esque air but are too unimaginatively furnished.

Hilary Ginther (Lureen) and Glenn Seven Allen (Jack) © Sarah Shatz
Hilary Ginther (Lureen) and Glenn Seven Allen (Jack)
© Sarah Shatz

Wuorinen has always claimed that his opera is closer to the spirit of the original short story than the very successful Ang Lee movie with its youthful stars and luxuriant landscapes. Adapting her own text, Proulx added a series of elements that were meant to make the narrative more palatable to opera lovers. She extended the presence of the protagonists’ wives, allowing the composer to change gears in his music. She introduced a Peter Grimes-like chorus of commenting townspeople. Even more, she made room for a senseless Commendatore-referencing ghost (Jack’s father-in-law). Unfortunately, there is a bothering disjunction between a text that overemphasizes the unsophisticated nature of the characters with their “straight” talk, with too many subject-verb disagreements and the brainy, fiercely complex musical environment.

Wuorinen continues to faithfully follow serialist dogma. That doesn’t mean that his music lacks the power to suggest, clearer than the staging, the stern landscapes, the omnipresent menace, the desolate life of the characters and their awkward interactions. All the remarkably transparent textures, favoring brass and percussion, were skillfully brought forward, without any hesitations, by the chamber orchestra conducted by Kazem Abdullah. Even if Wuorinen’s language is atonal, certain notes were used as musical anchors. The score starts with a long reverberating C, a representation of Brokeback as much as the Wagnerian E flat symbolizes the flowing waters of the Rhine. For the composer, the constantly returning C is also the “pitch class of death”. The notes a semitone higher (C sharp) and one lower (B natural) are the centers of the vocal lines for Ennis and, respectively, Jack.

Daniel Okulitch (Ennis Del Mar) and Glenn Seven Allen (Jack Twist) © Sarah Shatz
Daniel Okulitch (Ennis Del Mar) and Glenn Seven Allen (Jack Twist)
© Sarah Shatz

Brokeback Mountain allows singers to display more of their acting skills than vocal prowess. With his radiant voice, tenor Glenn Seven Allen, was well suited for the impetuous, open-minded Jack Twist, the most musically intense role of the opera. Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch reprised the role of Ennis del Mar he performed in Madrid. He portrayed with great sensitivity the character’s evolution, from a refusing to accept reality nitwit, barely talking in Schoenbergian Sprechstimme, to a fully comprehending, middle-aged man, able to express his grief in almost Puccinian terms. Soprano Heather Buck performed with clarity and compassion the role of Alma, Ennis’ unhappy wife. As Lureen, Jack’s rich wife, mezzo Hilary Ginther was a memorable presence, well beyond the size and sketchiness of her role. So were bass Brian Kontes as Hogboy, her father, mezzo Jenni Bank as Jack’s mother and bass-baritone Christopher Job as foreman Aguirre.

In Ennis’ final lament, after two hours of relentless aridity, a hint of lyricism is floating around. But, as in the ill-fated relationship between the two protagonists, it’s too late to plead for the listeners’ emotional response. As Thomas Mann wrote, conjuring his own “Magical Mountain”, as much a symbol of both change and dissolution as Brokeback, “It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death. Only love, not reason, gives kind thoughts.”