New York City Opera 2017-18 Review – Brokeback Mountain: Glenn Seven Allen & Daniel Okulitch Deliver Emotional Performances In Solid, If Not Always, Satisfying, Opera Experience

(Credit: Sarah Shatz)

This review is for the performance on June 3, 2018. 

It’s quite often that operas, great and otherwise, have been adapted from, what we’d call today, other media.

Whether plays or novels, it was standard practice for composers such as Verdi, Puccini and even Wagner to repurpose story and characters for the operatic stage.

And there are so many impressive examples of such adaptations. “La Fanciulla del West” derived from David Belasco’s play, “The Girl of the Golden West.” One of Verdi’s key masterpieces, “La Traviata” was also adapted from a play by Alexander Dumas (fils, Wiki would like us to note) “La Dame aux Camélias.”

So, the idea of a short story being transformed in just such a way is not that usual.

But there are more than a few things that make “Brokeback Mountain” a production of unusual interest, even without hearing any of the music or seeing how the story was shaped for the operatic stage.

It wasn’t simply based on a story, but that story was previously made into the ground-breaking and Oscar-winning film directed by Ang Lee.

That film based on the short story by Annie Proulx, took us into the heart of American legend, the fiercely independent, straight-talking, as manly as they make them cowboy,  and showed that even such icons could have complex emotional lives, conflicting passions, and secrets.

The story, a western romance if you will, is both novel and breathtaking as two men face their love – and desire for each other — home, as they say, on the range.

So, to review this New York City Opera production, the last of the season, it might be best to, not examine the music first, but discuss how the adapted story works on stage with the libretto written by the Pulitzer-prize winning author, Proulx.

The Challenge

It is perhaps that libretto where I have the most difficulty with “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s difficult not to compare it to the film adaptation. While there was an opportunity to take a period story, and through the medium of opera, amplify its power, passion, and message, that promise wasn’t – for me – realized.

On one hand, the libretto is faithful to the decades-long arc of the intimate relationship of the two Wyoming cowboys (actually a wannabe rodeo rider and a struggling ranchland). But covering that broad arc meant, especially in the second of the two acts, that the years pass fast.

It touches rapidly on the disintegrating family life – if you can call it that – of each cowboy.

The bickering, the accusations, the suspected infidelity. It all goes quickly. And yet when divorce seems like the obvious answer, it arrives with a speed and inevitability that flies in the face of the pain that has been building, and the pain yet to be caused.

The children, for example, aren’t really shown to have any relationship with their father Eniss Del Mar, the ranch hand sung by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. And though the role of his wife, Alma, is ably performed by Heather Buck, the pain of her suddenly discovering that her husband isn’t quite the man she suspected gets a bit lost.

One can say the same for the other side of the relationship, well-sung by tenor Glenn Seven Allen as the engaging Jack Twist, who is also trapped in a doomed marriage.

And perhaps I am asking too much from the two-hour production, to show them dealing with their lives, the world around them. Or at least, their own children.

But the growing affair of the two men — who first come together while tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain, keeping coyotes at bay – and that story of love, and certainly desire, is palpable on stage.

A dangerous love, since the world around them, the society of 1960s and beyond, might easily kill them if their “secret” was revealed about what they refer to as this “thing of ours.”

Now the Music

Which bring us now to the score itself…the music of Charles Wuorinen and “Brokeback Mountain”.

If one attended this opera expecting a lyrical score, or even one with intermittent bursts of melody, you might best need know ahead of time that you’d be sorely disappointed. The music is ruggedly twelve-tone.

And for the orchestral sections, from the bass-heavy, deeply brooding opening, it largely works. In fact, many times there is more drama in the pit than on the stage, where the roars and shifts of brass, timpani, and violins from below evoke the turmoil that these two men have created – and have accepted — by loving each other.

There are some powerful passages and conducted by Kazem Abdullah, who also led a production in Aachen, Germany, and the NYCO orchestra was an amazing presence in the acoustically-warm Rose Theater.

And the singing occasionally matched that degree of fire and power. Both Okulitch and Allen manage to sing what has to be fiercely challenging parts, with cues not obvious and the navigation of non-melodic notes more like sailing a stormy sea.

While Allen’s Jack Twist personality dominates the piece (and we feel his loss when he dies, as both character and performer), Okulitch’s bass-baritone is the vocal center.

As a character, though, Ennis has the most distance to travel, rejecting Jack’s vision of a life together. Jack, meanwhile, has swagger, and an easy smile and knows what he wants and is willing to take the risk.

But Ennis almost never quite gets there. It’s not until the end of Act two that we see and hear him fully embrace that love, albeit too late. His last scene and moments on stage – were indeed musically powerful.

Voices Up to the Task

Okulitch’s deep voice is certainly up to the task, while Allen sang Jack in a much lighter vein, but also with moments of beauty, especially when his higher voce mirrored the sound from the orchestra.

But – and here I will admit it to being a matter of taste, and maybe familiarity – those voices are infrequently given the music to emphasize the challenge, the passion, the conflict, and the tragedy of lives never quite coming together.

I would need to listen to the score again, but I think the only place that Okulitch is allowed to really soar is at that very last scene, where backed by a chorus (for the first time, a creative decision, or?), the voice is given music of appropriate power.

Ennis has visited Jack’s home, met his parents (well-portrayed by Kevin Courtemanche and Jenni Bank), recovered a shirt that Jack kept with blood from a fight they had…and then facing us, he holds the stage with the realization of what he lost, the regret of what he missed for those decades.

As mentioned, both long-suffering wives, Heather Buck (Alma) and Hillary Ginther (Lureen) perform wonderfully within the limits of their scenes. Ginther is especially a standout in the scene where a distraught Ennis phones to speak to Jack and learns he is dead.

Christopher Job also does well as the owner of the sheep herd who, spying on the two men on guard on Brokeback, discovers their secret. That said, this was another story disconnect for me. That confrontation and the repercussions should have been much stronger. In 1963, the sight of two men kissing would have been, amidst the peaks and coyotes, an explosive moment for the no-nonsense rancher.

As usual, the supporting cast members were all excellent, something that has become a hallmark of NYCO’s productions. Great voices, serious acting, enriching the stage and the story.

The Staging

This was a co-production with the Salzburg State Theater, and directed by Jacopo Spirei, it could not have been better suited to the perfectly-sized stage of the Rose Theater.

The opening wedge of rock, making two jagged peaks on the stage, serves as the mountain home for Jack and Ennis’s months on the mountain. They build a real fire to heat up tinned food, wash out their metal plates (and later bloody jaw) with a splashing mountain stream.

The sheer hardness of that rock seems to belie the softening of the two men, as they grow closer to the revelatory moment where, fueled by the banned-by-owner whiskey, they finally share their first night together.

And when their job on the mountain is over, when they need to leave the mountain, their refuge, and return to society, to wives to be, lives to be…the rock splits in two, an effective symbol of their going separate ways that will – despite everything — not be repaired.

And for other scenes, floating islands representing Lureen’s father’s office or Jack’s tiny kitchen glide into place, moodily accompanied by the ominous music, which at the most emotional moments, recalled – for me – the more expressive and dissonant tracks composed by Bernard Herrmann.

Again, like all the NYCO productions, after its run of four performances, it can no longer be seen in New York.

It will, I assume, travel to another city, another venue.

And it certainly deserves to. Because despite my various questions, it is a compelling opera to watch and hear. I would even revisit it, if only to grow more familiar with the musical vocabulary of the piece. I imagine there is much there that, with time devoted, would reveal musical secrets missed on a first hearing.

As the last production of the company for the 2017-2018 season, and as part of NYCO’s yearly Pride Initiative, “Brokeback Mountain” is an important work. And for next June, the company has announced a world premiere dealing with Stonewall Rebellion, composed by Iain Bell on a libretto by Mark Campbell.

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