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A CurtainUp Review
Angels In America
An Opera in Two Parts
By Elyse Sommer

Can we watch and listen to this opera on its own terms? Can we forego the impulse to compare the opera to the play to yearn for what is missing or be outraged by it and instead assume that this will be a different experience; same questions, same revelations, but a new way of hearing and seeing them? — from Director Sam Helfrich's program note.
Angels In Americasopera
Andrew Garland and Aaron Blake (Photo: Sara Shatz)
Good news is hard to come by these days. But high on the list of welcome news has been the return of the New York City Opera. The company's auspicious first season in Lincoln Center's beautiful Rose Theater ended with the New York premiere of Angels In America, Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös's, opera based on Tony Kushner's Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning epic.

New Yorkers had just four opportunities to respond to the challenge posed by director Sam Helfreich in his program note: To watch and listen to this opera on its own terms and resist the impulse to compare it to Kushner's. That was a lot to ask for, especially for people whose tastes in opera run to the ear hugging arias of Puccini and Verdi rather than the more atonal rhythms of contemporary classical music composers like Eötvös; also for those with indelible memories of live stage production like the Signature Theater's stunning 2010 revival of Kushner's full-bodied Gay Fantatsia of National Themes, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika (my review ) or the starry 2003 TV series.

In fact, given that the composer's wife Mari Mezei has trimmed so much of Kushner's text, a familiarity with the inspirational source will have an easier time following the way the key story lines jump around the minimally detailed locations. To wit, my own experience.

Though I'm a full monty Angels in America veteran, it took a bit for memory to kick in and help me follow Mezei's tightly focused narrative. Getting there early enough to read the program's full-page plot synopsis would help those new to the play. But don't count on the super titles which are hard to read no matter where you sit. Even if that weren't so, they're more distracting than clarifying.

At any rate, once past the first couple of scenes, I did find myself getting caught up in this Angels in America. Enough to make Mr. Helfrich wish that audience members will experience it without constant comparisons no longer to be such a tough to meet challenge.

I'll admit that what brought me to the Rose Theater was curiosity about seeing how Kushner's fantasia could sing. More importantly, how it could retain its potency with so many its assets eliminated or skimmed through — the emotionally and politically charged dialogues and monologues, the sly black humor. What Mr. Eötvös has wrought is indeed a unique musical entertainment that validates Tony Kushner as a playwright whose characters and themes transcend their time, genre and all sorts of interpretations.

This Angels. . . isn't better than the play, but the heavily condensed text works well with the dissonant but rousing music. And while the excessive cuts (the libretto represents less than a third of the Kushner script) certainly don't make this a typical and always easy to follow adaptation, neither is it composed, orchestrated or staged like a typical opera.

When did you ever see an opera with so many of the words spoken rather than sung? When did you last see a choral trio embedded into an opera orchestra pit and have that orchestra feature an electric guitar, contraband saxophone, a Hammond organ, plus assorted percussion instruments and digital sound enhancements. And, while nudity is common in stage plays, it's hardly business as usual for an opera. It all adds up to a compelling if probably doomed to be controversial addition to the growing canon of contemporary operas.

The plot focuses on the play's four key characters and their troubled relationships — the dying Prior Walter (Andrew Garland) and his lover Louis (Aaron Blake). . . Joe and Harper Pitt, the Mormon couple (Michael Weyandt as a closeted homosexual lawyer and Sara Beckham Turner as his valium addicted, sexually frustrated wife).

Naturally, bringing in both parts of the play in just under two and a half hours (including an intermission), doesn't allow even these plot propelling characters to be fully developed in terms of their backgrounds and interactions. Yet Mari Mezei has managed to populate her libretto with the other characters who are part of their stories. These include the famously infamous lawyer Roy Cohn (Wayne Tigges) who's as much in denial about his homosexuality as the young Mormon lawyer he's brought to New York to work for him; Prior and Roy's nurse Belize (Matthew Reese); Joe Pitt's anxious mother Hannah (Sarah Castle);and, of course, the titular Angel (Kirsten Chambers).

Ultimately it's Sam Helfrich's direction that makes the strongest case for heeding his advice to forego comparisons and give an unbiased hearing to Eötvös's and Mezei's interpretation of Kushner's play. Mr. Helfrich has guided his cast to make the most of their splenid vocal and acting talents, which includes frequent double role playing. Sarah Bekham-Turner is the most memorable of these double taskers, as the overwrought Harper and as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg haunting Roy Cohn's bedside (where he's dying of AIDs which insists to the very end that it's liver cancer).

Helfrich has also assembled a design team to give strong visual support. John Farrell has created a fairly spartan but effective setting to accommodate the at times simultaneous scenes in various apartments, hospital rooms, a New York Street and Central Park and the Angel's as always gasp inducing descent before the intermission. Derek Van Heel's lighting ads a nice other-worldly aura to the scenes when we hear the voices of some of Prior's hallucinatory dreams.

Since this New York Premiere's four-performance run has ended as I write this, I can't tell you to go see it. What I can recommend, however, is to add your name to the NYC Opera's mailing list at to make sure you'll have a chance to see what director Michael Capasso has planned for next season.

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Angels in America
An Opera in Two Parts based on the play by Tony Kushner.
Composer: Peter Eötvös
Libretto:Mari Mezei
Conductor: Stephen Mazzagatti
Director: Sam Helfrich
Set Design: John Farrell
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Derek Van Heel
Sound: Mark Grey
Wigs and Make-up: Georgianna Eberhard
Cast: Andrew Garland (Prior Walter),Kirsten Chambers (Angel, Voice),Sarah Beckham-Turner (Harper Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg, Angel Antarctica), Sarah Castle (Hannah Pitt, Rabbi Chemelwtz,Hwnrey, Angel Antarctica), Wayne Tigges (Roy Cohn, Ghost 1, Angel Antarctica), Aaron Blake (Louis, Angel Oceana),Matthew Reese (Belize, Mr. Lies, Woman, Angel Africani), Michael Weyandt (Joe Pitt, Angel Europe, Ghost 2)
Vocal Trio: Cree Carrico, Sarah Heltzel, Peter Kendell Clark
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Jazz at Lincoln Center Rose Theater
4 performances, June 10, 12, 14, 16, 20017
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on June 16, 20017

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