Angel’s Bone
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In Review > North America

Angel’s Bone

Prototype Festival

DU YUN'S OPERA Angel’s Bone, with libretto by Royce Vavrek, is often baffling, sometimes exasperating and always absorbing. The one-act piece, which had its world premiere on January 9 at the far-downtown 3LP Art & Technology Center, as the opening night of this year’s Prototype Festival, is a neo-expressionistic meditation on sex trafficking. But its subject matter emerges obscurely; in fact, through the first half of its eighty-minute span, I couldn’t quite discern just what was going on. The central figure is a suburban housewife, Mrs. X.E. (I still have no idea of the significance of the name.) She complains about her life, her sentiments seconded by her own image, projected as a time-delayed video behind her. Her husband bursts in to announce that a pair of childlike angels, male and female, has fallen in the garden. On his wife’s orders (“Prune them!”) the husband takes a meat cleaver to the angels, emerging with their feathers. These serve as the couple’s claim to fortune: Mrs. X.E. distributes them as talismans at a society gathering, soliciting “donations” for “spiritual meetings.” The creators seem to have a sure idea of where the piece is headed through much of this, but they haven’t done us the service of cluing us in.

Some concrete sense begins to emerge. The feathers turn out to be markers for the angels’ sex work, with the X.E.s serving as procurers. We see the angels in a series of brutal sexual encounters. Mrs. X.E. announces she’s pregnant with the Boy Angel’s child. Mr. X.E. gives the angels their feathers back, urging them to “restore your wings and fly away,” then uses one of the feathers to slash his own wrists. With the angels vanished and her husband dead, Mrs. X.E. becomes a tabloid heroine; the victim of a “man who forced his wife to pimp.” Angel’s Bone ends in a blare of noise and static; indeed, its closing scenes occupy a realm of nearly apocalyptic harshness. I don’t feel that the piece exactly earns the indicated level of emotional intensity: its action unfolds too obscurely to allow us to experience the trauma of its scenario on so grand a scale. 

But Du’s fascinating score redeems the opera. It begins with a Gregorian-like chant that soon develops “wrong notes” and dissolves into a Ligeti-like haze. The “haze” effect, with densely spaced chords augmented by all manner of electronic and recorded sounds, continues through much of the piece; in its complexity, the music compels you to listen.The work abounds in pastiche: Mrs. X.E. hands out her feathers to an off-kilter operetta gavotte—Offenbach through a funhouse mirror. The X.E.s beckon their customers with a sleazy striptease blues. The Girl Angel wails out her woes in an art-rock lamentation. Mr. X.E. plays out his suicide against whomping chords with the bombastic intensity of a Shostakovich death march. Through it all, Du’s inventiveness never flags: the opera is the work of a composer so thoroughly in control of her materials that she can play with them. 

Michael McQuilken’s production makes canny use of the sprawling loft space: the swirl of performers, stagehands and video projections echoing the intricacy of Du’s music. The singers, all using head mics, are powerfully amplified. Even so, the text can often only be apprehended through the projected surtitles; the unintelligibility is occasionally so extreme that I have to assume the effect is intentional. The miking impedes judgment of the performers’ vocal qualities, but all four principals deliver effective performances. Abigail Fisher, as Mrs. X.E., has the most complex assignment. She accomplishes a number of protean shifts in her physical deportment, from severe suburban matron to society beauty to trashy talk-show celebrity, commanding the stage at each new incarnation. As far as I could make out, her mezzo-soprano is strong and dark in its lower ranges, while her top has a soprano-like thrust. Baritone Kyle Pfortmiller impressively maintains firmness of tone throughout Mr. X.E.’s cacophonous death scene. The clarity of Kyle Bielfield’s tenor and the quiet intensity of his stage manner convey the otherworldliness of the Boy Angel. Jennifer Charles attacks the Girl Angel’s plaint with the gutsiness of a true rock-and-roller. Novus NY, an eleven-piece new-music ensemble, brings a thrilling immediacy to the score, under the baton of its founder, Julian Wachner. Members of the Wall Street Trinity Choir form the evening’s chorus while taking a number of smaller roles. They seem unfazed by the difficulty of the music, accomplishing prodigies of intonation throughout. 

When so much contemporary opera consists of anodyne treatments of established literary texts, it’s bracing to encounter a work as adventurous and thoroughly original as Angel’s Bone. For all of its perversities, I found it enthralling from first to last.  —Fred Cohn 

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