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Angels in America (New York City Opera)

A new opera, carved out of an epic, award-winning play, makes a valiant effort to condense a vast canvas into a focused drawing.

Andrew Garland, Michael Weyandt, Aaron Blake and Sarah Beckham-Turner in a scene from New York City Opera’s production of “Angels in America”
(Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Based on Tony Kushner’s epic, seven-hour play, Angels in America, the opera by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös (music) and his wife Mari Mezei (libretto) —here conducted with great agility by Pacien Mazzagatti—makes a valiant effort to tell its story in two-plus hours. New York City Opera presented the New York premiere of this opera as part of its commitment to presenting LGBT-themed works during each of its upcoming seasons.

By eliminating most of the extended fantasy elements of the play, they reduced the storyline to the domestic turbulence of two couples and a deservedly ugly portrait of Roy Cohn. Add in a visit by the iconic Bethesda Fountain Angel (here totally generic) and some very dramatic, brass-heavy music and you have this intriguing production by New York City Opera that succeeds as an opera as long as one is not familiar with the source material. What seemed heavy going and existential in the original comes across on a much more human level in the opera.

Mezei’s libretto turns Kushner’s lush play into something closer to a passionate Puccini or Verdi opera, except that this time the relationships are mostly gay and the Mimi is dying of AIDS and the Scarpia is a repulsive Jewish lawyer. This Angels in America combines speech with singing, often effectively using both at the same time.

Sam Helfrich, the director, brought all the elements together smoothly, timing the flow of the music and libretto expertly taking his well-chosen cast of singers from domestic unrest, to heavenly revelations and back again.

Performed within John Farrell’s efficient, but homely set reminiscent of a large, tiled locker room with a variety of portals allowing the entrance and exit of pieces furniture, the opera takes place during the early days of the AIDS epidemic when the diagnosis of AIDS was a death-knell.

Andrew Garland (below) and Kirsten Chambers (above) in a scene from New York City Opera’s production of “Angels in America” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

The plot begins with Louis Ironson (tenor, Aaron Blake whose voice and charisma pierced through the angular score) attending the funeral of his grandmother conducted by verbose, Yiddish-accented Rabbi Chemelwitz (mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle who also plays upright Hannah Pitt, the mom of sexually confused Mormon Joseph Pitt, showing extraordinary acting and singing chops in both roles).

Louis comes home to his lover, Prior Walter (baritone Andrew Garland, giving a brave, moving performance) who admits he has AIDS, causing Louis to flee, eventually landing in the arms of Joseph (Michael Weyandt, a boyish-looking baritone) who embraces his new life both as Louis’ lover and Roy Cohn’s new pet assistant.

Baritone Wayne Tigges never quite achieves the fierceness needed to put Roy Cohn across, but manages enough crassness to encourage boos and hisses. When the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg—for whose death in the electric chair he was responsible—haunts him, he seemed more petulant than savage. Ethel was effectively played by soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner who also played Harper, the drug-addled, sexually deprived wife of Joseph with equal ardor and vocal skill.

The above-mentioned Angel visits Prior, crashing through his ceiling. Whether she—played by a commanding soprano Kirsten Chambers—is a fantasy caused by Prior’s illness or a miracle, she commandeers all Prior’s thoughts and actions thereafter.

Added into this mix of passionate characters is Matthew Reese, a counter-tenor who plays, in addition to other minor characters, Belize, the nurse who does what he can to irritate Cohn. Mr. Reese’s voice was eerie emerging from such a large man and he made the most of it singing and acting his part.

Sarah Beckham-Turner, Michael Weyandt and Wayne Tigges in a scene from New York City Opera’s production of “Angels in America” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

All these character parade through the story, their paths crossing and re-crossing. They make love, argue, make threats, even occasionally stripping off all their clothing, all passionately in their own worlds and their own delusions, but never quite achieving the transcendence that makes great opera great. Whether this Angels in America will have traction in the opera world is obviously yet to be seen.

A vocal trio, Cree Carrico, Sarah Heltzel and Peter Kendall Clark, add texture and drama to many musical passages like an invisible Greek Chorus.

Kaye Voyce’s costumes, supported by Georgianna Eberhard’s wigs and makeup, made each character stand out. Derek Van Heel’s lighting help warm up the cold set.

Sam Helfrich, the director, brought all the elements together smoothly, timing the flow of the music and libretto expertly taking his well-chosen cast of singers from domestic unrest, to heavenly revelations and back again.

Angels in America (June 10 – 16, 2017)
New York City Opera
Jazz at Lincoln Center/Rose Theater
Frederick P. Rose Hall, Broadway and 60th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-721-6500 or visit http://www.CenterCharge.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (226 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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