Photo Journal: Operatic Version of Angels in America Gets Its U.S. Premiere

Classic Arts News   Photo Journal: Operatic Version of Angels in America Gets Its U.S. Premiere
As an idea, it seems either brilliant or bizarre: Angels in America, the opera. Yet it's been done — by Hungarians living in France, no less. Tony Kushner's "gay fantasia on national themes," a two-part, seven-hour stage epic of AIDS, politics, religion and redemption in 1980s New York, has been adapted by composer Peter E‹tv‹s and his wife, librettist Mari Mezei (working in English). The work premiered in Paris in 2004; it's now finishing its North American debut run, with the last of four performances at the Boston Center for the Arts tonight.

The production is the centerpiece of the 2006 edition of Opera Unlimited, an annual summer festival dedicated to contemporary opera as music-theater which is jointly produced by Opera Boston and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. (Among the works staged by Opera Unlimited since its 2003 founding are John Adams's Nixon in China and Thomas Ads's Powder Her Face.)

Angels-the-opera received a less-than-warm welcome when it premiered in Paris.

Critical opinion differed over E‹tv‹s's music, which provides an often-busy, often-quiet instrumental underpinning to vocal lines that move between Sprechstimme and spoken dialogue; there is, for an opera, relatively little all-out singing. In The New York Times, Paul Griffiths described the score as "a slippery and musically delightful combination of opera and musical," while The Guardian's Tim Ashley wrote that "all too often we seem closer to an abridgement of the plays with on-going incidental music rather than genuine opera."

But as drama this Angels was considered little short of a disaster: Griffiths called Philippe Calvario's staging "flat and unimaginative"; Variety's Matt Wolf said that "the stuffing has been knocked out of the source, along with all pathos, wit and — most astonishingly for an opera conceived in Europe — any hint of politics." David Patrick Stearns wrote for that he "wondered if E‹tv‹s had even met any real-life counterparts of the New York City gay people he's portraying ... this Angels in America is so oblivious to the milieu in which it's set that it probably shouldn't be produced in America."

Yet here it is — and rather successful, if the critics be believed.

They still don't agree about the score: The Boston Herald's T. J. Medrek says that it's "written in a kind of turgid style that characterizes much European modern opera ... [and] well expresses emotional rigidity," while Bernard Holland of The New York Times calls it "truly theatrical music that advances texts rather than calling attention to itself"; Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe writes, "E‹tv‹s provides a very elegant, supple, varied soundscape that serves as a kind of punctuation for the words, or sweeps across [them] like a yellow highlighter pen."

But this Angels, in America, makes far more theatrical sense than the American critics in Paris dared hope. The Globe's Dyer calls Steven Maler's stage direction "imaginative, economical, pertinent, and emotionally precise"; Holland writes in the Times, "I am pleasantly astonished at how Mr. E‹tv‹s, a Hungarian composer long residing in France, has so acutely touched Mr. Kushner's unequivocally American personalities."

What a difference two years and an ocean make.

Photos by Clive Grainger.

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