New York City Opera’s June Offering–Eötvös/Kushner’s “Angels”

The Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York, NY, June 12, 2017—Tony Kushner’s breathtaking play Angels in America was so operatic in itself, with its concentration on character, pinpointed and deeply felt emotions, and huge metaphors that someone had to turn it into an opera. Premiered in Paris in 2004 and since presented in Poland, Los Angeles, Boston, Germany, and elsewhere, with music by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös and a libretto by Mari Mezei, the six-and-a-half hour play has been reduced to two hours of music. Much is lost–the politics have been removed in favor of the central drama: several people dealing with the AIDS epidemic. “Politics is not the territory of music,” Eötvös has said; but the emotions, the angels, the hallucinations, Eötvös feels, are “abstract” and can therefore be put into music.

Well, the shorter playing time (some music has been cut from the original Paris production as well) certainly makes for a swift, punchy evening, and the emotions–and playwright Tony Kushner’s wonderfully wicked ear for wit and pathos–remain; but removing the socio-political elements have de-natured the work. It is entertaining but it doesn’t stun. There is no catharsis.

Eötvös’ music does not flow lyrically and the sung parts often switch to Sprechstimme or Sprechgesäng; it’s effective for a while, but one wishes the text rolled better off the tongue. (The voices are amplified–I will not comment yay or nay on the subject.) Eötvös studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and his music is reminiscent of his teacher’s, but, dare I say it, better: the use of electric guitar, wordless voices (from the orchestra pit) sometimes echoing, sometimes babbling, the off-beat percussion, moaning strings, and finely used saxophones are very effective. It rarely leaves the ear comforted and in this work, that is a good thing. The orchestra’s 16 players under Pacien Mazzagatti are virtuosos.

The performances are inspired. Playing against vocal type, Eötvös has scored the scared, queeny, AIDS-infected Prior as a baritone and the lover who abandons him, Louis, as a tenor: the tessituras are almost the same, but the tonal quality is different. Both Andrew Garland and Aaron Blake, buff figures, are fine actors and singers and worked with text and music handsomely and with fierce intensity. The role of Belize, the excitable, opinionated nurse, has been de-politicized and that turns it campier; nonetheless, countertenor Matthew Reese shone (as he also did in four smaller parts).

The amazingly sleazy Roy Cohn, who denies his own AIDS, was yelled, correctly, by Wayne Tiggs. Sarah Castle, contributed the most “sung” performance of the evening as the Yiddish-inflected (male) Rabbi, as well as Hannah Pitt and Roy Cohn’s doctor. The Angel, all in white with platinum blonde hair–a divine hallucination–found reality in Kirsten Chambers’ performance, the sharp-edged, upward plunge of the vocal line notwithstanding. The desolate Harper (another role that has been pared down from Paris) remained moving from Sarah Beckham-Turner, who also devastated with her chilly Ethel Rosenberg at Cohn’s bedside. Joseph Weyandt, as the sexually tormented Joseph Pitt, made a sympathetic case for the character.

John Farrell’s designs are sparse, the black-tiled walls and well-placed windows refusing to add any sympathy or warmth. Sam Helfrich’s direction was as well-paced as the swift opera itself.

Prior to the performance, incidentally but crucially, the company’s new general director, Michael Capasso, announced that to represent Gay Pride Month every June, the New York City Opera would present an LGBTQ-themed opera. Next year will bring the New York premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain. It’s a fine idea; one hopes it will not backfire into forced subject matter that is musically unworthy.