Composer: Peter Eotvos
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti
Librettist: Mari Mezei
Producer/Director: Sam Helfrich
Andrew Garland: Prior Walter
Kristen Chambers: The angel
Sarah Beckham-Turner: Harper Pitt/Ethel Rothenberg/Angel Antarctica
Wayne Tiggs: Roy Cohn/Ghost 1/Angel Australia
Sarah Castle: Hannah Pitt/Rabbi Chemelwitz/Henry/Angel Asiatica
Matthew Reese: Belize/Mr. lies/Woman/Angel Africani
Michael Weyandt: Joseph Pitt/Angel Europe/Ghost 2
The New York City Opera may have had an eventful life, but since its much celebrated comeback last year, it has been proving time and time again that it is here to stay. After tentatively testing the water last season, the feisty company moved on to a resolutely varied and ambitious program this season, which is ending with the much-anticipated opera version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, his by now classic play about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan era, which landed with a loud bang and a Pulitzer Prize on the theater scene in the early 1990s.
Unfazed by the fact that the two-part play is a seven-hour epic involving multiples characters, stories and themes, Hungarian husband and wife team Peter Eotvos and Mari Mezei boldly took on respectively the musical composition and the libretto. The result was a two-and-a-half hour opera that came out in 2004, has been successfully performed in major cities around Europe, and is having its long-overdue New York premiere at the Rose Theater right now. About time.
I had joined the masses and attended the play and watched the HBO film of Angels in America way back when, and my foggy memories served me well on Saturday night as quite a few audience members around me, who were unfamiliar with the story and had not bothered to read the program notes, confirmed that the opera was kind of hard to follow for novices. On the other hand, the sprawling play had been reduced in what may be the only way that was making sense for an opera: Several crucial scenes in which the emotions were raw, the social commentary barely there, the political context non-existent, and the singing pretty awesome.
In the pivotal role of AIDS patient Prior Walter, baritone Andrew Garland proved that he has some remarkable performing chops. His nuanced singing and committed acting were always on cue to convey his feelings, from his love for a boyfriend that will soon abandon him to his incredulity at being proclaimed a prophet by a random angel, of all things. Anguished, skeptical or hopeful, he confidently took us on a journey during which each day could have been his last.
As Louis Ironston, the neurotic Marxist lover that deserted Prior when the latter needed him most, tenor Aaron Blake managed the impressive feat not to appear as just a selfish coward, but as a deeply conflicted young man who simply could not face the admittedly dire situation.
Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges clearly had a ball impersonating stubbornly in denial, bigger-than-life – although not bigger-than-death –Roy Cohn, the notorious MacCarthyist New York lawyer and social celebrity that was as well-known for his boisterous personality and for his highly questionable business practices.
Working for him was Louis’ new lover, Joe Pitt, a well-meaning, deeply religious, closeted Mormon lawyer, who was struggling with many issues on his own, as you can imagine. Baritone Michael Weyandt did a particularly fine job bringing up his internal turmoil.
Joe’s wife, Harper Pitt, was unsurprisingly unhappy in her marriage and was remaining undecided about her next steps, finding temporary escapism in the Valium pills she popped at a rather amazing rate. Her acerbic wit and aching vulnerability were pointedly expressed by soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner, who also stole the show during her two appearances as a delightfully caustic Ethel Rosenberg.
I was never a big fan of the generally over-blown supernatural happenings in the original play, finding the complicated human stories more than mesmerizing enough to captivate and keep anybody's attention, but I must admit that I was extremely grateful for the blazing angel we had on Saturday night in effortlessly charismatic soprano Kirsten Chambers, who consistently displayed a solidly earthy presence and potently vibrant voice.
Overall, all roles were well provided for, and a lot of the singers, especially the less visible ones, such as countertenor Matthew Reese an assertive night nurse Belize and a delightful homeless woman, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle, a relentless Mother Pitt and a hilarious Yiddish Rabbi, managed to juggle their small but delightful parts smoothly and efficiently.
The often divided stage had the bare minimum on it, which allowed for props to be brought in and provide more context. There was nothing even remotely imaginative about the directions, although the bright ray of light from the side window that first announced the presence of the angel was simple, well designed and tremendously effective. The freight elevator that effectively brought her in was a bit less so, but it added an unmistakable touch of industrial chic to the humdrum proceedings.
The libretto was a constant mix of singing and speaking, which inevitably stretched the opera into Broadway musical territory, for better or worse. However, the same biting humor that made the original play so memorable was thankfully present in spades and kept on injecting some priceless comic relief into the grim situations. Just because the subject matter was somber did not mean that it could not be lightened up a bit, and on Saturday night there were plenty of spontaneous chuckles heard even during the darkest moments.
For the most part the modern score was ostensibly understated, suitably atmospheric, at times erring on the jazzy side. It made up for what it was missing in drive and intensity with unusual sounds coming from atypical components such as a discreetly plucked electric guitar, occasional low-key digital enhancements and three subtly eerie choristers, which fit in especially well during the hallucinatory and other otherworldly episodes. Bottom line is, if those angels did not soar as grandly as the original ones, they still had a fair amount of wind beneath their wings.