Review: NYCO Celebrates the LGBT Community With ‘Angels in America’
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, June 19, 2017
Commencing a new annual tradition of programming in honor of LGBT Pride in June, New York City Opera recently presented the New York premiere of Hungarian composer Pétér Eötvös’s 2004 operatic adaptation of Tony Kushner’s great play Angels in America in the dark, enveloping Rose Theater.
Angels in America, of course, was two separate evenings, and seven hours worth of material. Much like Tchaikovsky did with Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, or as Prokofiev with Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, the approach to this opera’s libretto (by Mari Mezei) is a series of vignettes highlighting emotional high points, skipping over much of the original’s details and connective material.
Eötvös’s music embodies and makes large the inner humanity behind the mostly realistic, sometimes plainly vulgar, dialogue. The vocal writing gives the singers exciting, juicy lines to act, with liberal use of histrionic effects and rhythmic speaking. Notably, the composer’s setting of English is impressive, always scanning naturally. Nonetheless, the supertitles were essential, especially when the thick orchestration threatened to overpower the stage in volume.
With a vocal trio in the orchestra pit lending an air of jazziness, but a relentlessly dissonant and expressionistic approach to counterpoint, the score is sort of Trouble in Tahiti-meets-Wozzeck. The composer’s imaginative orchestral palette (there is liberal use of electric guitar, Hammond organ, and low woodwinds), and wrenching, emotional response to the drama, results in a highly compelling evening, even if moments of pure musical pleasure were in short supply.
Strongly directed by Sam Helfrich, the opera provides some adroit characterizations. Chewing the scenery as Roy Cohn, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, must have found it satisfying to operatically enunciate a veritable arsenal of four letter words.
As Prior Walter, a gay man dying of AIDS, Andrew Garland gave us a heartbreaking, lyrical performance bereft of self pity. As Louis Ironson, Prior’s boyfriend, tenor Aaron Blake brought a truthfulness to this conflicted, potentially unsympathetic character.
Sarah Beckham-Turner excelled as Valium-addicted Harper Pitt, a Mormon who learns that her husband is gay. As Belize, Roy Cohn’s former drag queen nurse, countertenor Matthew Reese demonstrated an athletic and expressive voice and brought much needed levity to the proceedings.
The rebooted City Opera continues to make interesting use of clearly economical means. The set design here, by John Farrell, worked well for the most part. The ominpresent unit set, a clinical black tile with industrial feeling white windows and doors sufficed as the backdrop for various locales. Only the appearance of the Angel (sung with steeliness by Kirsten Chambers) on a descending metal contraption seemed under-conceptualized to the point of distraction.
The orchestra, under the expert baton of Pacien Mazzagatti, played magnificently, and the musical achievement this performance represents for the company is a significant one. New York clearly now has its City Opera back, ready to rise to the musical challenges, and delve into adventurous repertoire, fulfilling that essential niche in the city’s artistic offerings.
Angels in America presented by New York City Opera at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on June 10, 12, 14 and 16, 2017. Music by Pétér Eötvös; libretto by by Mari Mezei, based on the play by Tony Kushner. Conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti; directed by Sam Helfrich; set design by John Farrell; costume design by Kaye Voyce; lighting design by Derek van Heel; sound design by Mark Grey. Cast: Andrew Garland (Prior Walter), Kirsten Chambers (The Angel), Sarah Beckham-Turner (Harper Pitt), Sarah Castle (Hannah Pitt), Wayne Tigges (Roy Cohn), Aaron Blake (Louis), Matthew Reese (Belize), Michael Weyandt (Joe).
Cover: Kirsten Chambers (the Angel) and Andrew Garland in ‘Angels in America’ at NYCO; photo: © Sarah Shatz.