Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

DU: Angel’s Bone

CD Button Fischer, Charles, Russell, Du; Pfortmiller, Bielfield, McCargar; Choir of Trinity Wall Street and NOVUS NY, Wachner. Text. Vision into Art Records VIA 16 (2)

Recordings Angels Bone Cover 118
Critics Choice Button 1015 

TOO OFTEN, WINNERS of the Pulitzer Prize for Music seem to be chosen according to politics rather than aesthetics. But Du Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone—which received the prize in 2017—is the real deal. I’ve never experienced a work quite like this. The libretto, by Royce Vavrek (who has recently become ubiquitous in contemporary opera), is a disturbing parable of modern-day human trafficking and sex slavery. Two angels fall to earth and are taken in by a suburban couple, who deplume the winged messengers and confine them to a bathtub. In a downward spiral of greed and moral decay, Mr. and Mrs. X.E. pimp out these heavenly beings, pushing them into perverted acts that mix sex with benediction. In response to the brutality of Vavrek’s text, the Chinese-born, American-based Du has developed a fractured, schizophrenic musical language that pieces together hacked-up bits of various styles and genres. Reflecting the angels’ divine origins, she draws on religious choral music in a series of bizarre interludes for the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Bachian chorales and polyphonic passages reminiscent of Palestrina or Tallis are dirtied with dissonances and rancid microtonal inflections, as if something pure were being corrupted.

The more secular sound world of Mr. and Mrs. X.E. is marked by musical insanity. The couple is accompanied by the squawking winds of contemporary ensemble NOVUS NY, which burst into wildly thrashing tangles of overlapping lines inspired by free-form jazz. Du extends this chaos into a musique concrète collage of trash entertainment that serves as a soundtrack to Mrs. X.E.’s favorite soap opera—Mission Impossible-style spy-movie themes, video-game gunshots and explosions, ’80s electronica riffs and overdramatic sound effects clipped from reality television. This channel-flipping amalgam of pop culture colorfully conveys the swirl of daytime t.v. that has sucked Mrs. X.E. into delusions of grandeur. She’s a despicable character—a bored housewife who fancies herself a Virgin Mary type, especially after she coerces the Boy Angel into impregnating her. Soprano Abigail Fischer endows her role with sociopathic derangement, performing Du’s gesticulating vocal lines with a shrieking, high-strung intensity. It often verges on the grotesque, notably in her ridiculous cabaret number “I’ve been blessed,” a kind of circus-barker’s march in which Mrs. X.E. wangles her neighbors into paying for the angels’ “services.”

As the angelic sex slaves, Kyle Bielfield and Jennifer Charles are diametrically opposed, in terms of both vocal quality and stylistic background; nonetheless, their voices complement one another beautifully. Bielfield possesses a virile tenor with a Handelian, trumpet-like upper register that he uses to express the Boy Angel’s desperation for escape in the aria “We Will Fly Away.” Charles’s grungy delivery, on the other hand, is indebted to her career as an experimental rock artist, including a spot as frontwoman of the New York outfit Elysian Fields. She sounds weary and breathy, drooping at the ends of phrases like a strung-out addict. Her performance brings an edge to this work that wouldn’t be possible with an operatically trained voice. 

Indeed, there’s an element of extreme musical violence in Du’s score that culminates in the Girl Angel’s painful solo “Brick J.” It’s a difficult five minutes. Jazzy muted trumpet and hissing hip-hop beats back Charles as she speak-sings a slow R&B-tinged melody. Vavrek’s lyrics are at their most graphic, describing a particularly abusive john who sucks the marrow from the Girl Angel’s broken wing bones. Charles’s voice is manipulated through electronic filters, resulting in an unrelenting crescendo of inhuman panting and wailing. For the album’s bonus track, composer Du, also a vocalist, has recorded herself in a glitchy remix of “Brick J.” But it lacks the immediacy of Charles’s version, which rips us from the safe, plush comfort of the opera house: as Charles repeats the phrase “he likes it rough” through uncontrollable sobbing, the listener is forced to confront the gruesome truth of the work’s dark, real-world subject matter. —Joe Cadagin 



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