‘Angels In America,’ As Opera, Loses Its New York Focus

The Angel (Kirsten Chambers) appears to Prior Walter (Andrew Garland) in the New York City Opera production of Péter Eötvös’ ‘Angels in America.’ (Production photos by Sarah Shatz)
By David Shengold

NEW YORK — Péter Eötvös’ Angels in America, to a libretto by Mari Mezei that pares Tony Kushner’s epic drama into 2.5 hours, has been a succès d’estime since its Paris première in 2004. The New York City Opera concludes its season with the first performances in New York, where much of the story is centered, June 10-16 at the Rose Theater.

Louis Ironside (Aaron Blake) serenades Prior Walter (Garland), who is very ill.

The filleting of literary works for operatic treatment is nothing new — Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Prokofiev’s War and Peace are prime examples — but here the concentration on the interlocked romantic plots robs Kushner’s basic material about AIDS and homosexuality in the 1980s of its rich socio-political specificity. The libretto lacks virtually any sense of idiomatic Americanness or of the ways in which New York’s essential composition and history flavored the play. Sam Helfrich’s visually modernist production proved welcomely unapologetic for male eroticism and competent enough as to flow. However, except for Derek van Heel’s striking lighting, it looked “budget” and did little to restore the New York focus wanting in the libretto.

The orchestral performance under Pacien Mazzagatti was quite virtuosic, with the percussionists, saxophonists, organist, and celeste player having a particular field day. Eötvös’ music is in many places atmospheric and well wrought. But it isn’t particularly suited to the intense, seemingly spontaneous dialogue that characterizes Kushner’s play. The word setting often lacks the feel of native fluency; it’s little wonder that so many lines turn parlando. Even with whopping cuts in the basic material, almost all of the individual scenes plod because it takes so long to get through the ponderously set dialogue.

Prior Walter (Garland) launches his AIDS activism at Bethesda Fountain.

The composer and librettist must have had some sense of this, as one of the most damaging cuts is the long confrontation about politics and guilt, between the committed Jewish Leftist Louis and the more realistic and practical African-American night nurse Belize, that furnishes the philosophical and political heart of the play. Indeed, it’s troubling how much the fiery Belize — likeably played and well vocalized by countertenor Matthew Reese — becomes, to use Spike Lee’s term, a marginal “magical Negro” presence in the operatic treatment.

The central lovers received excellent performances — impassioned yet beautifully articulated musically and textually  — from Andrew Garland (Prior Walter) and Aaron Blake (Louis Ironside). One might expect the drama queen Prior to be a tenor and the wannabe butch Louis to be a baritone; Eötvös reverses that, yet has Prior resort to head voice with increasing frequency. Garland and Blake, both in fine shape physically, are skilled, specific actors. Garland’s baritone (paradoxically) radiated healthy security; Blake’s command of Eötvös’ high tessitura, dynamic extremes and stylistic eclectism proved highly impressive. Reminiscent of Trouble in Tahiti , a trio of very fine voices in the pit (Cree Carrico, Sarah Heltzel, Peter Kendall Clark) provided commentary, context, and counterpoint to the principals’ utterances.

Some of the doubling and tripling of roles are distributed differently than in Kushner’s play, but that isn’t necessarily a problem. The most versatility on display here came from mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle, in the triple challenge of Hannah Pitt (the Mormon mother of closeted Joe), the rabbi who opens the show, and the physician Henry (doctor to closeted gay lawyer Roy Cohn). Convincing in both male and female personas, Castle could also vary her timbre to sound warmly feminine, androgynous, or like a character tenor. The rabbi’s writing — one of the few feats of idiolect in a score that makes virtually everyone’s vocal music sound the same — is basically that of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Astrologer from Golden Cockerel: high-lying melismas with the occasional popped-out high note.

Prior Walter (Garland), ravaged by AIDS, begins to have visions.

Sarah Beckham-Turner (as Joe Pitt’s wife Harper) seems to have adopted the annoying mannered delivery of Mary-Louise Parker (in the 2003 HBO telefilm) as the neglected wife’s mode. She (just) managed the all-over-the-map tessitura that Eötvös calls for, but the results were not aurally pleasing. And why on earth is Harper onstage with Prior at the Bethesda Fountain, at the opera’s close?

Beckham-Turner fared considerably better as the ghost of disgraced Ethel Rosenberg, creating an incisive characterization and plumbing the chest voice depths. The adaptation deprives Ethel (and the audience) of one of the play’s most touching moments, when she dutifully says the Kaddish prayer over the monstrous Cohn, who had confessed to being her virtual executioner. Wayne Tigges growled and sneered his way through Cohn’s expletive-laced lines, with an accent that changed course every second sentence. Kirsten Chambers, here costumed like Ellen DeGeneres as the Angel, confirmed the impression she made in the American Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Strauss’ Friedenstag last October: a clear, serviceable house soprano, squarely on the notes but of no particular timbral distinction or beauty. Baritone Michael Weyandt, as Joe Pitt, sang solidly and certainly looked right, but neither Eötvös nor Mezei gives Joe anything remotely interesting to work with.

In a pre-curtain speech, general director Michael Capasso said that this production of Angels had been slotted to dovetail with LGBT Pride Month and announced an initiative by the company to stage an apposite work every year in June. Next up will be the local première of Charles Wuorinen and Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (premiered in Madrid, 2014) — a just decision, as the opera was in fact originally commissioned by Gerard Mortier for his (putative) NYCO tenure. The repertoire alignment seems a smart branding move on the company’s part, and one that may help build the kind of dedicated audiences City Opera enjoyed in its artistically richest periods. This Angels — more than solidly delivered — may be remembered as a milestone in NYCO’s positioning if not for its inherent musico-dramatic qualities.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.