Brokeback Mountain Opera receives world premiere

Charles Wuorinen's operatic version of Annie Proulx's gay classic gets mixed reception at Teatro Real, Madrid.

American composer Charles Wuorinen's much-hyped opeartic adapation of Brokeback Mountain has opened in Madrid to decidedly mixed reviews from European and American critics.

Guillem Clua of Out.com felt that the production focuses too centrally on the ominous aspect of the characters' fate "turning the story into something more akin to an ice-cold epic than fierce melodrama." He went on to say that "if someone was looking for any kind of romanticism, they’d have better chances logging onto Grindr while up in the mezzanine."

Written by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain began its life as a short story published in the October edition of The New Yorker back in 1997. In 2005 it hit the headlines when it was turned into a feature film by Academy-award winning director Ang Lee, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger. Wuorinen's 2014 adaptation with Proulx as librettist heralds its transformation into an opera.

“Several years ago when the film of the story originally appeared, I saw it and thought that this was certainly going to be operatic material that I could use. Then I read the story and realised that the story was much better actually, than the film,” said Wuorinen. On the development of the project he had to say, “Gerard heard of the interest I had in this project. After we made the decision to go ahead with the opera we looked around for a librettist and found, to our great satisfaction, that Annie Proulx herself would write the Libretto.”

The work is the result of a commission by recently ousted Teatro Real artistic director Gerard Mortier. Mortier, who is currently battling pancreatic cancer, attended the premiere. The production is directed by Ivo van Hove, conducted by Titus Engel and stars American tenor Tom Randle and Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch.

Describing Wuorinen’s score, Engel said, “Charles Wuorinen has a traditional big orchestra. He uses it very delicately and has a lot of different ways in his instrumentation… There is lots of colours, there is music that describes the mountains, there is music that describes the inner expression of the characters.”

The production, which opened this week saw the Spanish press broadly positive but many British and American reviewers were far less happy. Anthony Tommasini from the New York Times said: "There is not enough differentiation of musical character, a lack that dulls the dramatic richness and intensity, despite the pulsing, incisive performance that the conductor Titus Engel draws from the orchestra." Andrew Clements of The Guardian was similarly dissatisfied with the score, saying that "however striking it is, Wuorinen's rather dry, often etiolated music, sometimes recalling late Schoenberg, sometimes serial Stravinsky, rarely transcends the text enough to enhance the drama".

Brokeback Mountain runs from January 28-February 11. The opera is available to view worldwide on Medici.tv.

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Brokeback Mountain Opera receives world premiere
Tom Randle and Daniel Okulitch. Photograph by Javier del Real.
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Tom Randle and Daniel Okulitch. Photograph by Javier del Real.
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