'Angels in America,' Already Operatic, Is Now Presented as an Opera

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The New York Times
Bernard Holland
June 19, 2006

Much of life is spent thinking about death. Primary in our thoughts are the rate of its approach and hour of its arrival. It is a little like driving a car whose accelerator and brakes are out of our control. This idea may explain the public's hideous and enduring fascination with executions and suicides, for in both cases time races and the date is set. People are in control.

The rush of time drives Angels in America - first as Tony Kushner's gargantuan Broadway play about AIDS, politics and morality, and now in an operatic setting by Peter Eotvos. Written for the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and produced for an American audience by Opera Unlimited at the Calderwood Pavilion here on Friday night, Angels as opera thrives on characters who - in their varying pettiness, nobility, cowardice, heart and sheer size of personality - were operatic before there was music to make them so.

Having experienced his refrigeration of Chekov's Three Sisters into icy abstraction at the Châtelet nearly five years ago, I am pleasantly astonished at how Mr. Eotvos, a Hungarian composer long residing in France, has so acutely touched Mr. Kushner's unequivocally American personalities. The reduction of the play's seven hours to less than half that works more easily than one would think.

Opera is a medium of condensation to begin with. Most scenes survive, and if the opportunities to ruminate have been curtailed in Mari Mezei's libretto, the death clock of the AIDS epidemic sounds with an even more urgent tick.

Mr. Kushner's Angels in America works in part by joining the extravagant to the mundane. Angels crash through ceilings. Fantasies, nightmares and daydreams take on flesh and blood. Yet the play is really about the ordinary conflicts of couples, abandonment, fear and emerging flashes of decency and courage. In counterpoint is the real-life lawyer Roy Cohn, visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and ranting on his deathbed like one of Milton's fallen angels.

Mr. Eotvos's music augments traditional strings, winds and brass with saxophones, guitars, electronic keyboards, exotic percussion, ringing telephones and sirens. The vocal lines can ease into speech and usually operate against drifting clouds of sound. Mr. Eotvos's success with prosody outstrips that of most American opera composers in his ability to fit music to the flow of American English. He has written truly theatrical music that advances texts rather than calling attention to itself.

The opera was performed in the Virginia Wimberly Theater at the Calderwood Pavilion, part of the Boston Center for the Arts. The theater is small (370 seats) and attractive. The only abstraction, intentional or not, was amplification sent out from the stage in solid blocks of sound, depriving voices of any source or direction. The stage is also small. Some musicians sit at either side of it, dressed in hospital white that matches Clint Ramos's simple multilevel set. Given the cramped conditions, Steven Maler's direction kept people moving and crowding at a minimum.

This is not easy music. Principals sang with confidence, and Gil Rose conducted with admirable command. Thomas Meglioranza was touching as Prior Walter, who is as close to a hero as Mr. Kushner has chosen to give us. Amanda Forsythe's Angel was powerfully sung. Drew Poling was a hearty Roy Cohn. Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley and Anne Harley played the matrimonially troubled Joe and Harper Pitt; Ja-Naé Duane was Joe's mother, Hannah; Matthew DiBattista was Louis, Prior Walter's defecting lover; and Matthew Truss, a flamboyant countertenor, played multiple roles. All did well.

Opera Unlimited is a joint venture of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Opera Boston.

- Bernard Holland, The New York Times

© Copyright 2006 New York Times Company