Angels In America
It takes someone with Herculean balls to adapt Angels in America into an opera. After all, Tony Kushner’s sprawling 8+ hour examination of religion, politics, and AIDS during the Reagan years already sings with Kushner’s words, would music be redundant? Not only that, to reduce the play’s two parts into one standard-length work also takes considerable chutzpah - could it capture the play’s dense commentary and melodramatic storyline, one that moves from the AIDS wards of New York hospitals and the law office of Roy Cohn to the glaciers of Antarctica and right up to Heaven itself?
Yet for a play with such rigorous demands has (surprisingly) seeped into the public consciousness, largely due to Mike Nichols’ superlative HBO adaptation that has become a staple on that network. That film has helped make its sprawling, cosmic narrative familiar to many who would likely never have seen it in the theater; and may be a good starting point for those attending the American premiere of this operatic adaptation by Transylvanian composer Peter Eötvös, with a libretto by his wife, Mari Mezei. Without some previous knowledge of the source, their adaptation may just be baffling.
That, though, shouldn’t keep you from attending one of the remaining performances of the opera’s North American premiere presented by Opera Unlimited the Calderwood Pavilion - by compressing the original this Angels may seriously dilute Kushner’s commentary on politics and religion; but more than makes up for it in a taut, often strikingly beautiful musical texture that amplifies the story’s emotional content. Eötvös’s music has a shimmering style reminiscent of French composer Olivier Messiaen that finds its complement in this reductive version of Kushner’s text. You may wonder just what happens to certain characters as the story unfolds, but what this team does best is capture the essence of the piece. Mezei’s libretto makes the work more generic and simple; yet it is not diminished by it. Consider the opera a theme and variations, so to speak.
The basic plot remains: Prior Walter, a 30-ish New Yorker discovers he has AIDS; Louis Ironson, his lover, finds the situation impossible to deal with, and leaves him for a Mormon lawyer (Joe Pitt) he meets in Central Park. Meanwhile Harper Pitt, Joe’s wife, deals with her unhappy marriage by becoming a Valium addict. Alone, Prior thinks he’s going mad when an angel appears and calls him prophet, which leads to Prior’s encounter with Hannah Pitt (Joe’s Mother), and a journey to Heaven where he expresses his desire to live, no matter how awful the consequences.
What’s missing are the politics that shade the characterizations: Louis no longer is a guilt-ridden Jewish intellectual working as a temp in the New York Federal courthouse, but a guitar-strumming Yuppie with no moral compass; Belize, Prior’s closest friend, lacks the biting anger that made him so compelling in the stage version; instead he’s a rather sweet, two-dimensional queen; Joe Pitt isn’t ambitious and lost, just lost; Cohn remains pretty nasty, though one of the play’s crucial plot points - Cohn’s acquisition of AZT through influence with officials in the Reagan administration - has been cut in a way that reduces the emotional impact of the play’s denouement. That could also be because Eötvös’s music so rigorously avoids lyricism that the opera seems so cerebral; yet in functions quite effectively in underscoring the dramatic subtext of each scene, culminating in a stunning choral number (sung by the angels) that sets up Prior’s heavenly visit. There are no stabs at Broadway-styled pastiche, or even late Romantic opera, in the musical language, though a version like that could easily be imagined by some other composer. The orchestral playing in the current production, by musicians decked in summer whites who sits on either side of the stage, is first-rate. Under Gil Rose’s hand, Eötvös’s musical textures are beautifully expressed.
That the 20-musicians play such a crucial role in the design of the piece is just one of the many smart ideas in Steven Maler’s exemplary production. The look of Clint Ramos’ set is minimal: a white platform flanked by the musicians dominated by two adjoining trapezoids on which images are projected; which suits Maler’s cinematic approach perfectly. Kudos as well to Christopher Ostrom’s subtle lighting and Zachary Borovay’s projections. What may seem surprising is that the singers are miked, but the sound was excellent, as was the singing throughout. The performances are (mostly) excellent: Thomas Meglioranza brings pathos to Prior; Matthew di Battista manages to bring some complexity to the simplified Louis; counter-tenor Matthew Truss is quite likeable in the dual roles of the nurse Belize and Harper’s imaginary travel agent, and his voice has beautiful tone. Ja-Naé Duane is a exactly right as Hannah: no-nonsense matriarch played in a no-nonsense style; though her character’s transformation (like a number of others) is barely touched upon. Anne Harley has the most difficult acting assignment: to convey Harper’s disillusionment without resorting to caricature; and she does so remarkably well. It is too bad that her final speech - so beautiful in the play - has been cut. She also makes a haunting Ethel Rosenberg. Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley makes a capable Joe Pitt (though it is hard to get Patrick Wilson’s image out of my head.) Amanda Forsythe provides the opera’s most memorable music as the Angel, and she sings it gorgeously; only Drew Poling is uneven as Roy Cohn: on-target in a mean-son-of-a-bitch way some of the time, but channeling Paul Lynde at others. There’s also excellent trio of singers - Kristen Watson, Krista River, and Donald Wilkinson - who offer harmonic accompaniment as the score demands.
In the end, this Angels both is and isn’t Kushner’s original work. What could be? It needs to be taken on its own terms. As such it has power, beauty, and style, and is certainly well served in this superlative chamber-styled production. For a grander approach, look for the broadcast of the opera’s world premiere (by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris) that was filmed last year and is scheduled to be seen on PBS sometime soon. Dates have yet to be announced. If you can, though, check out this current production. It may not capture the expansive nature of Kushner’s work, but can stand on its own terms.
Atthe Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion; 527 Tremont Street; Boston, MA 02116. Info: 617-451-3388. Ticket Prices: $45.00-$65.00. Remaining performances: Tuesday, June 20, and Saturday, June 24, at 8 pm.