Brokeback Mountain: An Intense and Convincing Premiere

SpainSpainWuorinen: Brokeback Mountain, Teatro Real Orchestra and Chorus, Titus Engel (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 5.2.2014 (JMI).

Brokeback Mountain: Photo Janier Real
Brokeback Mountain: Photo Janier Real


Ennis del Mar: Daniel Okulitch
Jack Twist: Tom Randle
Alma: Heather Buck
Lureen: Hannah Esther Minutillo
Aguirre/Hog-Boy: Ethan Herschenfeld
Jack’s Mother: Jane Henschel
Jack’s Father: Ryan MacPherson
Alma’s Mother: Celia Alcedo
Bar Tender: Hilary Summers
Sales Woman: Letitia Singleton


New Production Teatro Real
Direction: Ivo Van Hove
Sets: Jan Versweyveld
Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic
Lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Videos: Tal Yarden


There is no doubt that the world premiere of this opera has been one of the biggest events of the season, one that attracted most international media to Madrid. There are few occasions when a world premiere is poorly received by the critics, and even more so when the opera is drawn from an Oscar-winning movie and the subject is the impossible love between two cowboys. However, despite these reservations, I must say that I enjoyed the performance and left the theater satisfied with the outcome. The approximately two hours of the opera (no intermission) never seemed ​too long. The subject, which could be difficult to handle, was very well covered in Annie Proulx’s outstanding libretto, for me the best part of the whole opera. Charles Wuorinen’s music is adequate, with some ups and downs. An imaginative and effective stage production plus a well-suited cast were fine complements.

When writing about a new or little-known opera, I usually explain some of the plot, but I don’t think that is necessary given the popularity of the 2005 movie of the same title. American composer Charles Wuorinen was commissioned to write the opera by Gerard Mortier when he was at the now-defunct New York City Opera, and Mortier brought the project with him when he was appointed artistic director of the Teatro Real four years ago. For this, her first libretto, Annie Proulx went back to her original short story, published in The New Yorker in 1997. I don’t know what Ms. Proulx might do with a libretto based on the work of other authors, but her work here is excellent. The subject of homosexuality is treated with great care and sensitivity, and in my opinion will help sustain this opera’s future.

Charles Wuorinen’s music was generally satisfactory with some very attractive moments and others that are less appealing. Obviously, one doesn’t expect to leave the theatre humming tunes, as if it were Bellini, but the score works reasonably well. In past months I have attended three recently-premiered operas that I think should have a good future: Written on Skin by George Benjamin, A Harlot’s Progress by Ian Bell and Brokeback Mountain. Of the three, I consider the latter to be the best dramatically and Written on Skin the most original, but musically I place Wuorinen ‘s opera below the other two.

The stage production by Ivo Van Hove is quite effective, with excellent video projections that form a necessary complement to the stage. These beautiful images help to locate places at Brokeback Mountain. The sets follow the minimalism in fashion nowadays. The first part of the opera imaginatively places the protagonists in different locations with only two tents on stage, while in the second part some pieces of furniture serve to create the home environment. The direction of the actors is  good, particularly with regard to the two main protagonists, but all the characters live their personal dramas with conviction.

Titus Engel offered an intense reading of the score, always at the service of the drama on stage. As usual, the performances of the orchestra and the choir were exemplary.

The main protagonists of the opera, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, were interpreted by two excellent singing-actors. They were, respectively, Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch and American tenor Tom Randle. They lived their characters with much intensity and were entirely convincing, especially Mr. Okulitch.

The best vocal performance of the night was by American soprano Heather Buck in the character of Alma, Ennis’s wife, whose marriage eventually breaks down. Her voice is attractive, well handled, and she is a compelling performer. Czech mezzo-soprano Hannah Esther Minutillo was serviceable as Lureen, Jack Twist’s wife.

In the supporting cast I should mention the stirring peformance in the final scene of  mezzo soprano Jane Henschel, as Jack’s sensitive and emotional mother, and also of tenor Ryan MacPherson as his father.

Teatro Real was at about 80% of capacity. The audience gave a tepid reception to the artists, including the composer.

José Mª. Irurzun