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In Review > North America

Angels in America

New York City Opera

In Review New York City Opera Angels in America hdl 917
Reese and Garland in NYCO’s Angels in America
Courtesy New York City Opera

AS THE LAST PRODUCTION of its current season, the admirably reconstituted New York City Opera presented Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös’s Angels in America, an adaptation of Tony Kushner’s widely lauded Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1993. The play, in two parts, is seven hours long; the opera is closer to two and a half.  Kushner’s sprawling work is subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Accordingly, one could almost say that Eötvös’s opera is itself a fantasia on Kushner’s work. It might be somewhat bewildering to see this churning, modernist opera without knowing the play (or at least the 2003 HBO mini-series adaptation). Going in with some familiarity, however, enables the viewer to experience the opera as a modernist gloss on the play, a concise musical version whose dense and sometimes forbidding electro-acoustic language heightens the sense of disintegration that all the major characters are experiencing in their lives.

The opening funeral scene, in which a rabbi is giving a somewhat unconventional eulogy, sets the tone musically. It’s clangy and noisy, with a combination of rhythmic speech and singing. From the orchestra pit, a jazzy trio of singers shadows and echoes the rabbi’s melodic lines, which sometimes include Jewish liturgical cantillation. (Afterwards, one character aptly notes, “This is a weird service.”) Eötvös uses shards of instrumental sound to build up a disorienting, kaleidoscopic texture that subverts operatic norms just as the lives of gay men were subverted in the 1980s by the mysterious plague. Occasionally Eötvös provides some vocal lyricism over the atonal orchestral machinations, on earnest lines such as Louis Ironson’s plea to the rabbi, “What does the Holy Writ say about someone who abandons someone he loves at a time of great need?” In contrast, many of the laugh lines are spoken rather than sung, implying that the composer felt they would land with maximum impact without music.

Eötvös’s eerie, morphing soundscapes are well suited to a play filled with hallucination. The music, however, could have been better deployed to differentiate hallucination from reality. The most distinctive scenes are those involving the titular Angel (Kirsten Chambers) and the AIDS-stricken Prior (Andrew Garland). These passages are heralding and cataclysmic—otherworldly in a distinct manner that is not heard elsewhere in the opera. Chambers drove home the celestial import with her arresting, gleaming soprano, also adding an insouciant touch of self-mocking at her own vocal pyrotechnics.

As the suffering Prior Walter, Garland deployed a versatile, muscular baritone that sometimes undermined the character’s supposedly weakened status. Deprived of some of Prior’s most dramatic moments by Eötvös and librettist Mari Mezei’s reduction, Garland was at his best in Act II, when he turned into a convincing, if unwilling, prophet—and showed an impressive falsetto. As his fickle lover Louis, tenor Aaron Blake negotiated a treacherous tessitura with skill and, strumming a guitar, crooned a ludicrously serious number with lyrics such as “Jews don’t have any textual guide to the afterlife.” The flexible baritone Michael Weyandt has the requisite clean-cut good looks for the closeted Republican Mormon Joseph Pitt, and he showed a remarkable emotional range in the challenging role. As Harper, Joe’s valium-addicted wife, Sarah Beckham-Turner revealed a rounded, focused soprano and managed to convey Harper’s tenuous grip on reality without playing crazy. Weyandt and Beckham-Turner made Joe and Harper compelling in their failure to connect. (Beckham-Turner was also convincing at the other end of her vocal range as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.) Wayne Tigges’s turn as the contemptible but charismatic Roy Cohn was a dramatic tour de force as much as a vocal one, since much of Cohn’s role is spoken. The vibrant countertenor Matthew Reese was full of empathy as Belize, the male nurse—quite distinct from the sassy, often acerbic Belize of the play. 

Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti led the proceedings heroically, and the intrepid City Opera Orchestra dispatched the forbidding score with great zeal. Director Sam Helfrich kept the transitions fluid and consistently sustained visual interest, with the help of Derek van Heel’s crescendos of light for the Angel’s scenes and John Farrell’s sleek set of black tile. If Eötvös’s stripped-down operatic take on Angels doesn’t entirely stand on its own, it’s still a unique and thoroughly impressive accomplishment—a transformation of one compelling artist’s vision through the prism of a radically different sensibility. —Joshua Rosenblum

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