BOSTON -- A quarter century after the first American case of AIDS was diagnosed, Angels in America -- playwright Tony Kushner's two-part, seven-hour epic about the disease, the lives it touched, and the callous disregard with which politicians marginalized its explosive early spread -- long ago transcended topicality to become a major landmark in this country's theatrical oeuvre. That Kushner's play should have given rise to a new opera is less surprising than is the fact that a subject so distinctly American in setting and tone -- if not its subject, a more universal concern -- should have been taken up not by a prominent native composer, but by a Hungarian avant-gardist who has been creating opera for less than a decade.
Peter Eötvös devoted a great deal of his early career to the cause of other composers: as a performer in Karlheinz Stockhausen's ensemble, as conductor of Pierre Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain and as an itinerant maestro specializing in toothy modern scores. The widespread acclaim that greeted his 1998 setting of Chekhov's Three Sisters thrust Eötvös into the spotlight as an operatic composer of note. Angels in America, his third opera, premiered at Paris' Théâtre du Châtelet in November 2004; a second production followed at the Hamburg Staatsoper, in June 2005.
It's surely a sign of this opera's success that even as the Hamburg staging was being revived at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam (on June 15 and 17), the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Opera Boston joined forces in the work's American premiere, under the auspices of the impressive, three-year-old Opera Unlimited festival. Staged by Steven Maier, vice president of artistic programming at Boston's Wang Center and artistic director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, this new production (viewed on June 17, the second night of the run) made savvy use of the Wemberly Theatre, an elegant 372-seat space within the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Set and costume designer Clint Ramos neatly integrated the 16-piece ensemble into his angular, all-white staging: Strings, winds, percussion and a trio of non-acting vocalists, all clad in white, flanked the raked central platform on which much of the action took place, while conductor Gil Rose, two keyboardists and two guitarists, all in black, melted into the shadows below the foot of the stage. Two large, triangular surfaces rose behind the platform, suggesting angelic wings and providing a surface on which Christopher Ostrom's lighting design and projections by Zachary Borovay played.
In adapting Kushner's sprawling play to a workable two-and-a-half hour length, Eötvös and his wife-librettist Mari Mezei concentrated on three basic strands of plot. Prior Walter, diagnosed with AIDS, struggles with the effects of the disease, as well as his abandonment by his overwhelmed lover, Louis. Joe Pitt, a practicing Mormon, grapples with revealing his own homosexuality to Harper, his drug-addicted wife, and Hannah, his mother, who is unable to accept his coming out. The third narrative -- that of boisterous, bigoted New York prosecutor Roy Cohn, who refuses to acknowledge his own diagnosis of AIDS -- lends an air of dark comedy. All three plots intertwine; in addition, both primary and secondary characters take on multiple roles, and appear to one another in visions. Almost entirely omitted are Kushner's more pointed political implications, although Cohn's diatribe when he is diagnosed alludes to the prevailing sentiment towards AIDS in the corridors of power.
Inspired by Kushner's metropolitan milieu, Eötvös spent a week in New York absorbing Broadway musicals prior to tackling Angels in America. The results are evident not so much in the musical score -- a busy, glinting construction in which angular, dissonant and athematic passages are imbued with a rich lyricism -- but rather in Eötvös' mixture of speech, semi-sung declamation and conventional operatic vocalizing. That all are discernible to the ear is a reflection of his considerable skill in setting the English language. Voices are amplified, both for emphasis and to allow mixing with non-musical sounds generated from the two keyboards.
Thomas Meglioranza, a New York-based baritone well known for his acumen in both early and contemporary music, was altogether exceptional as Prior, vividly projecting self-pity, terror, rage and hope, and comfortably sashaying in fuchsia drag during one spectral appearance. His electricity was matched by that of Anne Harley, whose dazed, rejected Harper was ideally tragicomic: pitiable, but never maudlin. Harley also provoked ripples of genuine unease in her appearances as Ethel Rosenberg, who appears to gloat over the dying Cohn. Drew Poling tore into the role of the sleazy Cohn with serious gusto -- especially in his opening scene, ingeniously scored for a cacophony of ringing telephones and chattering voices.
Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley was moving as an understated yet deeply conflicted Joe; so, too, were Matthew DiBattista (Louis) and Ja-Nae Duane (Hannah), who plumbed the humanity of less immediately sympathetic characters. Despite harsh amplification so overbearing as to distort voices, Amanda Forsythe sang gorgeously as the Angel. Completing the cast was countertenor Matthew Truss, who stole scene after scene with his mellifluous voice and ebullient manner as gay nurse Belize. Truss also played Mr. Lies (one of Harper's hallucinations) and an addled homeless woman encountered by Hannah in the South Bronx.
Rose's musicians met the challenges of Eötvös' rich, imaginative score, with "offstage" vocalists Kristen Watson, Krista River and Donald Wilkinson adding much to the otherworldly atmosphere of an opera that slips from the all-too-real to the utterly surreal with effortless grace.
(Remaining performances of Angels in America will be held on Tuesday, June 20 and Saturday, June 24.)
Copyright © 2006, Musical America and MusicalAmerica.com
My sincere thanks to Susan Elliott, my Musical America editor, for permitting me to reproduce this here so punctually. In addition, I urge you to check out Tom Meglioranza's site, where he's provided some candid and entertaining insight into the preparation and execution of his role.
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