BWW Review: City Opera's ANGELS IN AMERICA Sings in New York Premiere

Left to right: Andrew Garland, Michael Weyandt, Aaron
Blake and Sarah Beckham-Turner. Photo: Sarah Shatz

Can an opera's libretto be true to its literary source without being a carbon copy of it? It not only can--it has to be; otherwise, a work like Peter Eotvos's ANGELS IN AMERICA would end up being as long as the four operas of Wagner's Ring Cycle without saying anything new.

I knew that Eotvos's work, which had its local premiere at New York City Opera last weekend, directed by Sam Helfrich, clocked in at around 2 ½ hours, compared to the seven hours of Tony Kushner's two-part epic. How would it compress all those verbal parries, the humor, the politics, the theatricality, and still be ANGELS?

The answer was that this ANGELS seemed neither better than the original nor different enough, despite a challenging, rangy score by Eotvos, performed by Principal Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti and his City Opera orchestra, that could soar but more often talked.

And oh that talk: At the opening night performance, it seemed to me, the opera appeared undone by its libretto, the work of Mari Mezei. It felt like, in cutting the original down to size, she took an ax to the seven-hour drama rather than creating something original to work with the opera's sometimes tonal, sometimes percussive and electronic score in drawing characters and driving the story. Yet, since Mezei is the wife and frequent collaborator of French-based, Hungarian composer Eotvos, he must share the credit for its dramatic form and surely got what he asked for. The result was characters who were often less than the sum of their parts and sometimes disappeared from the action without explanation.

Helfrich's production (with John Farrell's scenic design and Derek van Heel's lighting, Kaye Voyce's costumes and Mark Grey's sound design) seemed to take the opera's shortcomings in stride, however, keeping things moving and helping to shape performances carefully.

Two couples are at the heart of the story: the gay Prior and Louis (baritone Andrew Garland and tenor Aaron Blake), the closeted Joe and Valium junkie Harper (baritone Michael Weyandt and soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner), both pairings doomed by one partner's lack of commitment and lies. Garland and Blake came off better; Prior was more clearly drawn, both musically and dramatically, from the moment he announces he has AIDS, and Garland took advantage of every chance he had, including the humor, while Blake made the most of his commitment-phobic character, with his bright tenor enlivening the somewhat-less-pithy material. Weyandt and Beckham-Turner came across as a little pale (symptomatic of his character but certainly not of hers, as Harper, or as the ghost of accused spy, Ethel Rosenberg).

The opera fleshes out the character of the Angel (is she really there?) who proclaims that Prior is a prophet and something big is coming. Luckily, it had soprano Kirsten Chambers to take hold of the role, for she did very well with the opera's most conventionally "operatic" music. In the showy--though much eviscerated here from Kushner's version--role of the nurse, Belize, and several other, smaller roles, countertenor Matthew Reese commanded the stage.

Mezzo Sarah Castle had a fine time as Rabbi Chemelwitz, also finding nuances in Hannah, Joe's mother, and Henry, a doctor. The last of the major roles is the only one based on a real character, Roy Cohn, the closeted Republican lawyer and powerbroker (not to mention mentor/role model for a certain man currently in the White House). Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges was as slimy and loathsome as called for--too bad there wasn't more of an aria for him to hang his character on. (He also scored as the ghost of one of Prior's forefathers, also named Prior.) Soprano Cree Carrico, mezzo Sarah Heltzel and baritone Peter Kendell Clark were an eery, unnamed trio whose voices wandered in and out of the proceedings, often producing odd sound effects.

Kushner's play is a well-known quantity in these parts, both from George C. Wolfe's original production on Broadway, an off-Broadway revival, Mike Nichols' mini-series for HBO or from those returning from a quick trip to London, where Nathan Lane is currently holding court as Roy Cohn at the National Theatre. The opera frequently seems to count on the audience's knowing one of these other incarnations to be able to decipher what is going on. The score doesn't have that luxury and, paired with a libretto that I found cut much of the humor, the pathos and the politics, the result is not so much a a CliffNotes version of the play but a Classic Comics take on it that's no joke.

It's great that City Opera, in performing ANGELS IN AMERICA during Pride Month as part of its LGBTQ initiative, is living out a vision of bringing contemporary works to New York audiences along with the classics. I hope I can be more enthusiastic about their next choice of vehicle.


New York City Opera's production of Peter Eotvos's ANGELS IN AMERICA will have two further performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre, West 62 Street and Broadway, on June 14 and 16 at 7:30 pm. It has strong sexual content, nudity, mature themes and language. For more information and tickets, visit City Opera's website.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow