Clipping the wings of an apocalyptic epic
Rupert Christiansen reviews Angels in America at Theatre du Chatelet, Paris
There are plenty of wonderful operas taken from good plays, and a few (Otello and Wozzeck, for example) taken from great ones. What these all have in common is a sense that music - more specifically, the singing of the text - expands the drama and enriches the characters. It isn't enough simply to reflect what is already there, or to enhance the mood like a film score. Music must be the driving force, the medium of revelation.
This is the hurdle at which the composer Peter Eötvös and his librettist wife Mari Mezei fall flat on their faces. Their adaptation of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's apocalyptic epic of Aids and the spiritual turmoil of the Reagan era, condenses rather than expands the theatrical original, squeezing a gallon of drama into a pint-pot of opera.
It isn't just a matter of cutting too many of Kushner's words or scenes. The problem is that anyone with memories of the play on stage (or in Mike Nichols's excellent screen version, shown on Channel 4 earlier this year) will find its operatic incarnation thinner in every respect: the characters diminished, the plot less rich, the language less resonant.
Out goes the sexiness - Prior's anguish at the loss of Louis, and the latter's affair with the buttoned-up Mormon Joe scarcely register. Out goes the Satanic grandeur of the lawyer Roy Cohn, reduced here to a deluded buffoon. Out goes the Dickensian cumulation of the narrative and its intertwining of disparate human fates.
What is left moves with cartoon-like swiftness, drained of emotional urgency and oddly dated - a bad dream of a crisis now replaced by other terrors.
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