By calling his drama Angels in America “a Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Tony Kushner implies that his two-part, seven-hour saga about America’s response to Aids operates like a musical work; perhaps he even envisioned that it might one day be turned into an opera. That day came in 2004 when the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös’s opera had its premiere at the Châtelet in Paris. That a long play had been transformed into a shortish opera (2? hours) provoked little dissent, but critics held that Eötvös’s music lacked a strong profile.
Indeed, in witnessing its American premiere, a collaborative effort by Opera Boston and Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Eötvös’s Angels sometimes seemed more like an experimental music-theatre piece than an opera. The vocal parts (all amplified) have a lot of speech and very simple musical declamation. Instrumental textures oblige by being correspondingly sparse, yet Eötvös’s imagination ensures that, more often than not, they are interesting. I liked the cacophonous accompaniment to the telephone calls of the lawyer Roy Cohn (the piece’s “villain”), the orchestral use of voices in echoing words, the glittering resplendent music for the Angel when she appears before the Aids victim Prior, and the arresting blend of treble voices in reacting to news of Chernobyl.
Notwithstanding the lofty subject of Kushner’s drama, its plot has been likened to soap opera. But soap operas are entertaining, and so is Eötvös’s opera even if it falls short of being cathartic.
Clint Ramos’s all-white set, with clusters of musicians dressed as medics at either side of the stage, represented a hospital room. This left to one’s imagination the opera’s many locales but facilitated swiftly moving action under Steven Maler’s direction. Amanda Forsythe sang radiantly as the Angel (though it was a disgrace that the amplification distorted her high notes) and another arresting soprano, Anne Harley, excelled as Harper, the valium-addicted wife of the closeted homosexual Joe (Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley). Thomas Meglioranza won the audience’s sympathy as the Aids-afflicted Prior, abandoned by his partner out of fear. Gil Rose’s conducting stressed instrumental precision and showed a fine feeling for dramatic flow.
3 out of 5 stars
By George Loomis for the Financial Times
© Copyright 2006 The Financial Times Limited