'Brokeback Mountain' Opera: The Critics Weigh In

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Reviews of Charles Wuorinen and Annie Proulx's new opera, Brokeback Mountain, are trickling in. Most critics are in agreement that the opera, which premiered on Tuesday at Teatro Real Madrid, has some masterful writing and largely fine performances. But they share reservations about its modernist score and dense libretto.

Originally conceived for New York City Opera, the opera is based on Annie Proulx's short story and Ang Lee's Academy Award-winning film of the same name. It stars Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch and American tenor Tom Randle as closeted ranch hands Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist.

For those who can’t make it to Madrid, the opera will be streamed live on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 at 2 pm ET. You can watch the opera online, via Medici TV, here at WQXR.org.


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Anthony Tommasini, in the New York Times, calls Wuorinen’s score “intricate, vibrantly orchestrated and often brilliant” but adds, it also “comes across as a little too brainy and relentlessly busy."

“To his credit, there is not one saccharine or melodramatic touch in the score,” Tommasini continues. "Still, you yearn for the music to sing, to convey the moments of romantic bliss and sensual pleasure that the uptight Ennis Del Mar and his more daring companion, Jack Twist, experience.”

Financial Times music critic Shirley Apthorp writes that the opera “succeeds only partially.” Describing the libretto as “too wordy," she notes that the work should have been a provocative last gesture by ousted artistic director Gergard Mortier.

Yet, "after two solid hours of male-male intimacy and marital infidelity, complete with loud percussion and partial nudity, the audience responded with uniformly polite applause,” Apthorp reports.

“Brokeback – the Musical it most emphatically isn't,” writes Andrew Clements in the Guardian. “For 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 rather than just adding rather terse punctuation and commentary to it."

Clements adds: “The generally sparse scoring at least means that a great deal of Proulx's text gets across in the performance, but that's a mixed blessing.”

On the website BachTrack, critic Laura Fuornes notes how Wuorinen’s craggy score aims to depict the dangers of the protagonists' situation. "His music, however, never manages to be truly unnerving," she writes in a contrarian review. "If anything, it is too easy to listen to, its descriptive nature more clichéd than evocative."

Spanish critics may have taken a local sense of pride in the work, which has been one of the most anticipated events in the international opera season. Juan Angel Vela Del Campo writes in El Pais, "The libretto is descriptive and leaves no room for ambiguity. It is transparent and sometimes, alas, too predictable, despite the introduction of imaginative ghost and choir. Emotions are contained operatically. The dramatic tension is heightened by the music composed by Charles Wuorinen. It is well constructed and it creates a rich atmosphere by imagination and variety."