“More life” is the aspiration of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” the blessing its characters fervently hope to gain.
But while Mr. Kushner’s play, sprawling over two parts and seven hours, wants more, more, more, its operatic adaptation, composed in 2004 by the Hungarian modernist Peter Eotvos, settles for less. With the fat of the original script carved away, then much of the meat, you’re left with a two-hour opera that’s like a skeleton: elegant, chilly, a bit otherworldly, ultimately unnourishing.
The simple facts of “Angels” are what remain in Mr. Eotvos’s version, written with Mari Mezei and, through Friday, having a belated New York premiere at the Rose Theater by the rebooted New York City Opera. At the story’s core is a pair of couples — one gay, one straight/closeted — trying to negotiate the rocky terrain of the early AIDS epidemic.
Real life, in Mr. Kushner’s vision of those terrifying days, keeps sliding into dreams. He conjured an extravagant cast of colorful, sometimes fantastical figures: an elderly rabbi, a pair of long-dead Englishmen, Roy Cohn, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a grandiloquent, tic-ridden angel. And he surrounded them with quirky theatricality and, above all, exuberant talk.
To cut the stream-of-consciousness verbosity, as an opera libretto must, is to leave exposed the fragility of the play’s central, rather standard-issue melodramas. The essential quality of “Angels” is not its plot but its too-muchness, its over-the-topness; to have just enough of it is to have not a lot at all.
What the opera does have is Mr. Eotvos’s music, a troubled, trippy texture that can be suddenly charged with anxiety or grandeur without ever feeling clotted. Instead of “more life,” the opera seems to take its motto from Harper, its pill-popping Mormon housewife. “I am undecided,” she says in the first act. “I am undecided.”
Mr. Eotvos has tried to find in his orchestra (conducted here by Pacien Mazzagatti) a parallel to the unsteady visions and hallucinations onstage. Plucks of electric guitar work that instrument for all its echoey melancholy. A vocal trio gives an unseen, unexpected halo to certain of the characters’ words. A recurring, queasy slow-motion trill recalls the technique Verdi used to convey the creepy reveries of “Macbeth.”
It was a canny decision for Mr. Eotvos to mingle speaking and singing, an attempt to evoke the loose boundary between real and surreal. In the opening scene, Louis — the neurotic gay Jew who eventually betrays Prior, his sick lover — has impassioned singing lines that are met by the rabbi’s curt, Yiddish-inflected spoken dialogue. Later Joe (Michael Weyandt), a closeted lawyer, is in bed with Louis when he says, speaking, “What you did when you walked out on him,” before seamlessly completing the sentence in song: “was hard to do.”
But so much air tends to surround everyone’s statements that the tension diffuses; this is a work, for better and worse, more meditatively expansive than taut, yet stuck with too many naturalistic trappings. Given its homogeneous dreaminess, it’s no wonder Sam Helfrich’s staging — with suggestive lighting by Derek Van Heel and, by John Farrell, a set of looming, ominous black tile — felt flat, as literal-minded as the libretto, which is less imaginative than the score.
Andrew Garland, as the terminally ill Prior, sings with confidence, as does Aaron Blake as Louis, his shifty boyfriend — here a smoother talker (and singer) than Mr. Kushner’s jabbering hysteric. The most naturally operatic character in the play is the eccentric angel who appears to Prior, and Kirsten Chambers digs into her swooping, penetrating pronouncements. A sneering Wayne Tigges suggests Roy Cohn’s malignancy but not his seductiveness.
Best is Sarah Beckham-Turner, wry even in desperation as Harper, her voice cool yet vibrating with vulnerability. (She also delivers a drolly dispassionate Ethel Rosenberg.) But neither Harper’s struggles nor anyone else’s register with so much texture stripped away. And the consolatory ending feels tacked-on after two hours of jittery gloom.
But maybe you’ll think otherwise. Or maybe one of the three remaining performances will be so different than Saturday’s that it would leave me with a different impression of the work.
That possibility has been on my mind recently. I reviewed the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert’s rendition of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on Thursday — and criticized it as defanged. I happened to return the next evening, and the same piece was now blazing: more pointed and pungent, a journey through a dark night of the soul that ended in an uncomfortably bright daylight.
This isn’t mea culpa; I responded to Thursday’s performance as it was. But it’s a reminder that live performance is more complex and changeable than any single snapshot. More life, indeed.
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