Brokeback Mountain, Teatro Real, Madrid – review

Gerard Mortier is gravely ill. We have known this for some time but it is still a shock to see the ousted artistic director of Madrid’s Teatro Real so gaunt. It reminds us that life is a temporary condition for all of us.

At a press conference held directly before the world premiere of American composer Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain, Mortier spoke openly about his mortality and about the opera. La traviata was also a scandal when it was first performed in Venice, he remarked. Brokeback Mountain might scandalise the conservative Madrid public, “but since I am in an existential situation, I don’t care.”

The opera was conceived for the New York City Opera, where it is impossible to believe that Mortier had not hoped, at least on some level, to scandalise the public. A gay 12-tone cowboy opera – what could be more provocative?

In Madrid, apparently, many things could be. 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.

Mortier, who guided Europe’s music theatre tastes during his decade at the helm of the Salzburg Festival, who provoked audiences to riotous rage, who set the tone of the Ruhr-Triennale’s gritty industrial core, who ruffled feathers in Paris and thoroughly irritated New York, and who built young audiences wherever he went, may well have craved a few boos on Tuesday evening. There were none.

In fact there is nothing particularly provocative about Annie Proulx’s stark short story of two men sharing an impossible love in an inhospitable environment. It is very much the stuff of operas. Since Proulx wrote Wuorinen’s libretto herself, and the creative team stayed well away from the temptation of echoing Ang Lee’s film, the opera stands on its own. It is more explicitly tragic than the story. Ennis barely speaks at the beginning, but his part evolves as the work progresses, until finally, after Jack’s death, he can express his love in lyrical lines. Proulx’s text gives her characters words that were only implied in her original tale. Too many words; less would have been more. A superlative author is not automatically a consummate librettist.

Wuorinen’s score is as perilously close to sentimentality as it is possible for atonal music to be. Though he cites Moses und Aron as an inspiration, the music is unashamedly pictorial, echoing early Alban Berg more than late Schoenberg.

Ivo van Hove’s production is an uncharacteristically literal rendering of the stage directions. In Daniel Okulitch and Tom Randle, Madrid has a pair of leading men with an ideal mix of strength, desire, repression and poetry. Titus Engel conducts with easy fluidity, and keeps his well-rehearsed cast together.

Would Brokeback Mountain be a fitting swan song for Gerard Mortier? The thought is unpleasant on several levels. He would probably prefer to go out with something huge. He would probably prefer not to go out at all.

It is the pain of things left unspoken until afterwards, when it is too late, that Brokeback Mountain ultimately tries to convey. It succeeds only partially. Can we ever do more?

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