By Guillem Clua
Pictured: Tom Randle (Jack Twist) & Daniel Okulitch (Ennis Del Mar) | Photos by Javier del Real
Last season the National Theatre of Catalunya premiered Pere Riera’s play Barcelona, an epic tale about the reunion of two old girlfriends during the Spanish Civil War. The production was an instant hit, and it’s still running in a private theater in downtown Barcelona, Spain. It's a daring production that explored not only the fight for survival of a Spanish Republican family, but also implied a lesbian relationship during the two women’s youth that would powerfully reemerge at the end of the play when (spoiler alert) they decide to die together.
The ovation after every performance was deafening. After seeing the two ghostly figures of the former lovers dancing an eerie tango under the bombs, a brief text was projected onstage that explained how Barcelona endured weeks of savage fascist air raids in March 1938, killing thousands. At that moment, the main character of the play wasn’t one of our two tragic heroines anymore, but the city itself, and thus the enthusiastic applause would address not only the company and the creative team of a great show, but also (and foremost) something that was beyond them—in this case, the innocent victims of a brutal civil war.
Something similar happened after the performance of the opera version of Brokeback Mountain at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain, I attended this past Saturday (the opera's official opening night was January 28). I had the feeling, however, that, unlike Barcelona, the audience didn’t give their applause to the show, but rather despite the show. One could smell disappointment among the Prada-perfumed audience, high expectations gone, a general sensation of having crashed the wrong party with the wrong clothes (and a dull boyfriend). But every one of us applauded. We applauded the concept, not the result; we appreciated the important milestone in gay visibility of turning an iconic love story between two men into an opera, despite the fact that it didn’t translate into a satisfying artistic experience. I sensed that we could relate to the tragic tale of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, but not the ones we saw onstage (bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch and tenor Tom Randle, respectively), but the ones we once read in Annie Proulx's story or, most likely, saw in Ang Lee’s Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed film.
Expectations had been mountain high since former New York City Opera director Gerard Mortier commissioned composer Charles Wuorinen in 2009. A gay opera! Can you imagine? Opera is already the quintessential over-the-top gay genre. Throw in an iconic gay libretto, and you should have the ingredients for the gayest event of the season, blessed by two world-class opera houses (one of them financed by the conservative tea-party-ish Spanish government). After Brokeback Mountain’s three Academy Awards, gay culture registered for Mainstream University, and this opera production would be our Graduation Day: Success registered at the hightest of echelons of culture. The audience was all dressed up for the occasion. Any queer with a trace of sensibility was there, ready to take the communion (or for some, the first baptism) of contemporary music and the excitement of being part of LGBT history—while dressed in brand new Jil Sander shoes. What could go wrong?
Well, passion for starters. Or lack thereof, to be more precise. Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two young men who meet in the summer of 1963 while working as shepherds in the mountains of Wyoming. Their first sexual encounters in the solitude of the mountains lead to two decades of clandestine meetings, during which they can feel liberated from the miserable lives they have when they're apart. A story like that requires a high dosage of passion that was nowhere to be seen on the stage. We’re gay, for god’s sake: We’ve seen Maria Callas throwing herself from the top of Castle Sant’Angello, to invoke just one example of the countless divas who suffered for love.
One might expect that anyone attempting to tell a "tragic" love story wouldn’t forget that. Instead, the production focuses on the ominous fate of the characters since the beginning, turning the story into something more akin to an ice-cold epic than fierce melodrama. Yes the male leads showed skin, that’s true (both Okulitch and Randle are great performers and physically apt for their roles of brute cowboys), but they were too corseted into the conventions of the genre to convey any chemistry. Their sex scenes felt forced and bizarre. If someone was looking for any kind of romanticism, they’d have better chances logging onto Grindr while up in the mezzanine.
Of course atonal music didn’t help. I'll admit, I can break a record of how quickly I burst into tears (mere seconds) while listening to the first guitar chords of Gustavo Santaolalla's main theme from Ang Lee’s movie. I didn’t expect an easy, mellow, Hollywood ballad, for sure, but Wuorinen’s score didn’t make any concessions, despite previous statements in which he confessed his desire to be “more accessible” for this production. Well, it wasn’t. Or, in my view, it failed to tell a love story.
When I try to approach atonal music, I always get to the conclusion that it’s made to be understood rather than felt. And you can’t understand love. The score was perfect in other moments, especially to convey the gloomy presence of the mountain, the hostility of the shepherds’ boss Aguirre (“Kill everything that’s not sheep”), or the ghostly presence of Jack’s father-in-law and his spectral choir of black cowboys.
Stage direction didn’t help either. A gigantic white screen looms over most of the stage during the first act, inevitably recalling the movie version, but failing to capitalize on its potential. That powerful canvas is only used to project a few stills of Wyoming landscapes and several “X years later” interstitial titles in Arial Black (!). The rest of the stage solutions are scarce and unimaginative. Experimental Belgian director Ivo van Hove admitted he “used realism in a minimalistic way.” Then again, that decision felt bland for a story and a genre that demanded a little more grandeur. Ennis del Mar’s final aria is a great example of that. When he goes back to the mountain for the last time, he takes Jack’s shirt with him. While there, he admits for the first time his feelings for his deceased lover and swears not to love another man ever again. At this point, he hangs the shirt on a hook (which looked like he was hanging the laundry to dry) that then lifts up to heaven.
In short, Brokeback Mountain unfortunately failed to become the operatic referent of the gay community. The recent string of commissions of gay-themed operas—including Opera Theatre of St. Louis's Champion, Santa Fe Opera's Oscar, and, most recently the Met’s recent production of Nico Muhly's Two Boys —all seek to fill that vacancy by connecting to contemporary audiences interested in new love stories. The jury's still out whether any of them have been as successful as they had hoped. Meanwhile, anyone in Madrid who’s willing to see a thrilling opera about impossible love had better buy tickets for Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, that’s being represented in rotation at the same Teatro Real with Peter Sellars and outstanding video projections by Bill Viola.
Guillem Clua is a playwright and journalist based in Madrid, Spain. His play 'Invasion' is being performed at the Teatro Conde Duque in Madrid, and he's currently rehearsing the Spanish version of 'Smiley,' a gay romantic comedy that was a hit in the Barcelona theater season last year.