Angels in America: Opera Review

Gorgeous distillation of now-classic play emphasizes its hallucinatory visionary content instead of the sprawling narrative.

Peter Eötvös and Mari Mezei's operatic version of the Tony Kushner epic stands as a distinct and complementary work to the original.

Adapting the more than six hours of Tony Kushner’s epic meditation on the AIDS epidemic (originally commisioned by the Mark Taper Forum and opening in 1991 and 1992) into an opera may have been a herculean task, but married couple Peter Eötvös and Mari Mezei have accomplished it with a magnifying glass, cherry-picking the most poetic passages, those unwieldly symbolist elements that defined the original’s most outsized and tonally indigestible ambitions, and creating a text of unremitting beauty, so dense with allusiveness and intense emotion that it makes nearly too rich an evening’s meal to digest.

The plots survive, though more in representative scenes than in dramatic development, and those unfamiliar with the source material may find the loose ends hard to follow. (While virtually all the words sound like Kushner’s, only 10% of his text remains.)

Since what entrances the creators are the hallucinations and the incantatory invocations, there is far more of angels than of America, and the indigenous voice of Kushner’s very particular social portrait is largely missing. Roy Cohn (Kelly Anderson) doesn’t get to chew the scenery, and the Mormon couple Joe and Harper Pitt (Nikolas Nackley and Julia Migenes) and weak-willed Louis (Jonas Olofsson) aren’t given their full character arcs, as the dying Prior Walter (David Adam Moore), with his drug-fueled metaphysical dreams, becomes the central protagonist.

Instead, there is the unbroken lyricism of the music, atmospheric, supportive of the rhapsodic speeches, ironic in its commentaries on the action, respectful of the text as an uncustomary equal expressive partner in an opera. Eötvös has composed nine operas (including adaptations of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Genet’s The Balcony), of which this is the sixth, originally premiering in Paris in 2004.

For this west coast premiere, Eötvös said before the performance, he has continued to revise and refine the scoring and believes this to be the first mounting of his final version. Eötvös has enjoyed a banner week in Los Angeles, conducting his work at Jacaranda in Santa Monica over the weekend, and with another premiere to be presented later this week by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Although lacking in scenery, this ostensible concert version appears to be thoroughly staged by David Gately, as the acting is fully realized (Migenes appears from the original cast, as would have Omar Ebrahim, but visa delays forced his withdrawal and replacement by Nackley) and provides ample suggestion to encourage an audience’s imagination to fill in the phastasmagoria without literalizing our individual visions.

As is inescapable in operatic casting, no one visually matches their roles, but every voice was sublime, given such luscious material, and the portrayals were psychologically adept and convincingly interior. When such a star as countertenor Brian Asawa appears in the now truncated supporting turn as the nurse Belize, one must applaud the uniform depth of talent, as seven of the eight singers play multiple roles carrying over the practice from the original plays. Moore must necessarily be the standout, as he carries the heroic brunt of the action, though it must be mentioned that the now far more dominating role of the Angel is captivatingly captured by Measha Brueggergosman.

Eötvös’ penchant for employing spatial relationships among sounds, such a doubling flute and clarinet at opposite ends of the stage, including three chorus voices within the orchestra itself, mixing in musique concrete sound effects (a cab horn in Central Park inspires simultaneous G and E notes for Prior’s cue to hallucinate), shows off to great effect in the Disney Hall acoustic, and even the spoken passages, often problematic in that space, carried well.

This is an opera that I believe will endure, as a distinct and complementary work to Kushner’s unquestionably classic original, providing yet another example to my personal conviction that the art form remains vibrant, valuable and alive, as the last thirty years of composition can stand persuasively against even the best comparable periods of the past.