The Boston Phoenix
Lloyd Schwartz
June 21, 2006

Whatever anyone thinks of the actual opera, congratulations are again in order to Opera Unlimited, the collaboration between music director Gil Rose’s Opera Boston and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project, this time for bringing to Boston the American premiere of Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös’s attempt to make an opera out of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, his Pulitzer-winning play about the AIDS epidemic and the collapse of public and personal values under Reagan (one remaining performance, June 24 at the Majestic Theatre). Three years ago, Opera Unlimited brought us one of Boston’s most exciting productions of a contemporary opera, Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face. The following year, it gave us yet another memorable production of a contemporary political opera, John Adams’s Nixon in China. The stage director of Powder Her Face, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s Steven Maler, did another skillful job with Angels. Clint Ramos designed the elegant stage set and characterful costumes. The cast was talented, game, and heroic in learning this challenging new work. The opening performance at the Calderwood Pavilion was preceded by a well-deserved testimonial to Larry Kessler, who has just retired after 23 years of running the AIDS Action Committee.

Kushner’s play—really two evening-length plays—may be the most ambitious American script since Eugene O’Neill, with a complex network of interconnections that includes right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg (whom Cohn prosecuted), a Mayflower-descended WASP with AIDS, his Jewish lover (who abandons him), a gay black nurse, a rising but closeted young Mormon law clerk, his valium-addicted wife, his seemingly ultra-conservative Mormon mother, and an Angel. The play, with its verbal coloratura, arias, and duets, is already a kind of opera. What does music add, especially when this six-hour epic has been reduced by more than half?

Eötvös’s music provides atmosphere and a sense of delusional “irreality”—in a range of styles that include wailing saxophone blues and creepy percussion underlying ominous confrontations, with a high-lying, heavenly septet of angels near the end. A trio of singers in the orchestra provide a kind of halo of sound as they repeat or anticipate what the characters are singing or mimic the babble on the other end of a telephone. The libretto by Mari Mezei, Eötvös’s wife, includes overlapping scenes, and therefore overlapping voices.

Maler’s staging of these montages is often revealing. The basic set is a tilted hospital room—everything takes place in it, including a pick-up scene in Central Park between the guilt-ridden lover who can’t handle his companion’s illness and the young Mormon. The betrayed lover’s hospital bed remains right in the middle of the cruising area, so the betrayal becomes even more palpable. Maler pulls his punches, though, by having the new sexual partners crawl into bed with their pants on (nothing here remotely as daring as the oral sex in Powder Her Face). Projection designer Zachary Borovay substitutes an effective squirmy light show for the iconic angel wings in the play.

Mezei’s libretto, unfortunately, oversimplifies Kushner’s characters and the way they relate to one another. In the play, Roy Cohn, amusing and horrifying, is a character with an enormous personal and political effect on everyone around him; in the opera, he’s a cartoon figure with almost no connection to anything else that’s going on. The gay black nurse, a moving, three-dimensional character in the play, has been reduced to a campy stereotype. The opera’s first act retains the Cliffs Notes outline of Kushner’s elaborate story, but the second act virtually abandons plot. The AIDS patient visits Heaven and decides, even with his illness, “I want more life” (in a musical setting that emphasizes the wrong word, “want”). But the moving motivations for this decision are gone, along with the play’s essential political impulse. This second act makes the first act irrelevant. As drama, it’s a catastrophe.

This might not matter if the music compensated. But though some of it is quite beautiful as background, little of what’s sung is memorable. As in so many contemporary operas (Adès and Adams are exceptions), most of the vocal lines sound like recitative, even in the most florid arias. The score is rhythmically and harmonically static, despite the startling textures. Much of what Kushner has the characters say is already in quotes. “You’re just a Christian martyr,” Belize, the black nurse, says to Prior, the AIDS patient, quoting Tennessee Williams. But the music just keeps rolling along, without any sense of allusion.

Some of the most effective moments come when characters simply speak their lines. But there’s little consistency in this “melodrama,” no apparent reason some lines are sung and others spoken. In his original version of Carmen, Bizet had major musical set pieces erupt from the spoken dialogue to powerful dramatic effect. For all his compositional proficiency, Eötvös seems not to understand (or have any interest in) the fundamental functions of musical discourse.

Despite the composer’s decision to amplify everything, a decision that blurs the diction and hurts the eardrums, the cast members, most of whom play multiple roles, are almost uniformly excellent. Anne Harley (Mme. Mao in Nixon) is both an aggressively confused pill popper and a haunting Ethel Rosenberg. Ja-Naé Duane, the flat-spoken Mormon mother, is also a no-nonsense Hassidic rabbi and Cohn’s frustrated doctor. Vocally precocious countertenor Matthew Truss is the cartoon gay nurse and a mysterious bag lady. Drew Poling makes Cohn a lively caricature. Amanda Forsythe is an otherworldly nurse/angel. Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley is the uptight Mormon law clerk. Thomas Meglioranza, the impressive Chou En-lai in Nixon in China, excels again as the betrayed and visionary Prior. Only tenor Matthew DiBattista, as Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover, suggests no inner life, no torment (and seems neither Jewish nor gay). The three disembodied voices are the superlative Kristen Watson, Krista River, and Donald Wilkinson. The classy on-stage chamber orchestra, wearing hospital whites, and the keyboard and electric-guitar players in the shallow pit, are all superb, and Gil Rose conducts as if his life depended on it.

Opera Unlimited also presented several free concurrent events. An afternoon recital featured spectacular Elizabeth Keusch singing eight different roles in Judith Weir’s 15-minute anti-war opera for unaccompanied solo soprano, King Harald’s Saga (1979), which is about the failed Norwegian invasion of England in 1066 (just before the successful Norman invasion). Keusch’s “duet” for Harald’s two wives was a mini-tour-de-force in itself. Then the members of Angel‘s off-stage trio joined mezzo-soprano Lynne McMurtry and pianist Alison d’Amato in Voices of Love and Death, a moving group of American songs evoking elements of Angels.

For The Boston Phoenix

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