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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Opera Review: The Sod Couple

The New York City Opera climbs Brokeback Mountain.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Save a horse: Daniel Oklutich (right) embraces Glenn Seven Allen in a scene from Brokeback Mountain.
Photo by Sarah Shatz for New York City Opera © 2018
Ten years ago,  New York City Opera commissioned composer Charles Wuorinen to write an opera based on Anne Proulx' short story Brokeback Mountain, which had been made into a much-lauded film by Ang Lee just three years before. That version of City Opera failed and folded, and the opera premiered in Madrid in 2014. On Thursday night, Mr. Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain (with a libretto by Ms. Proulx) finally had its North American premiere at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, mounted by the new New York City Opera run by impresario Michael Capasso.

It proved to be worth the wait. Mr. Wuorinen sets the story of two cowboys falling in love in 1963 to the spiky twelve-tone language that is his stock in trade. This sets the twenty-year romance of of Jack Twist (Glenn Seven Allen) and Ennis Del Mar (Daniel Oklutich) against the sound of the art music of their times, although one imagines that these gents might prefer a nice Johnny Cash record. The use of sprechstimme is also ideal for expressing their inarticulation: Ennis' silences and Jack's eventual despair. They sing when being emotionally honest, and the music blooms when they fall in love.

The two leads shine, in a Spartan production by Jacopo Spirel that at times, looked like a low budget Ring.  As they climbed their lonely, windswept hillside mountain, set up their little tent and munched burnt prop toast, Mr. Allen and Mr. Oklutich spoke in grunts and short asides. The lyricism came later, as their loneliness, mutual need and precarious living situation brought down the societal barriers that existed against homosexual love in Wyoming in the 1960s. The music flowers with their love, rising to some glorious heights only to fall again into roiling shadows as the first act boils to an end.

Those barriers are the subject of the second half of the opera, which features Jack and Ennis, both now trapped in unhappy marriages but still madly in love with each other They live many miles apart, and try to conduct their affair (a series of "fishing trips") in a world where words like "bisexuality" and "polyamory" had yet to slip into common usage. City Opera is mounting this work as part of a commendable initiative celebrating LGBTQ Pride, and the restrictions on these two men's miserable lives serve as stark reminders of how far society has progressed in the last few decades.

As Jack, Mr. Allen supplies much of the opera's charisma. He is a rodeo rider, a gonzo Texan with a big heart. Mr. Allen brings his strong presence and bright tenor to the part, inhabiting this romantic figure clearly and simply. Mr. Oklutich has the tougher assignment as Ennis, who goes from reluctant lover to heel in the second act . His decline and refusal to embrace Jack's big dreams is what dooms their relationship, and Jack's suspicious (offstage) death is its capstone. The ending is a long coda that is the opera's only uncertainty: there is no transcendence in the final pages, and no resolution for Ennis' loss.

The supplimentary characters are led by soprano Heather Buck as Alma, Ennis' wife. She has a firm, bright soprano although her introduction, buying a wedding dress, is a jarring interruption to the cowboy romance. Mezzo Hilary Ginther is a fine singer, and does not have enough to do as Lureen. A bizarre scene where she communes with the ghost of her dead father strikes the opera's only false note. Christopher Job is commendable as Aguirre, the trail boss who brings the boys together and provides their first, unflinching glimpse of the ugly face of homophobia.

Mr. Wuorinen's use of the twelve-tone idiom is neither irritant or throwback: it serves as the ideal musical idiom for this stark and emotional story. The thematic development and use of three distinct, close and ultimately irreconcilable tonalities in the score is an elegant solution and one that prevents this opera from ever descending into kitsch. Under the baton of Kazem Abdullah, the music that grows from these seeds is abundant and varied, and even bursts into flowerings of surprising and welcome lyricism, particularly in the passionate love scenes. See it. 

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