Angels in America depicts the first phase of the AIDS pandemic, in the very early 1980’s. Back then, the disease wasn’t even identified. Healthy young men were dying gruesome deaths from “Karposi’s sarcoma”, a cancer of the very old. Then apparently straight people succumbed, even bullying homophobes. It’s hard to appreciate how bad those times were, if you didn’t live through them. Yet AIDS was a turning point in society, because it exposed hypocrisy and prejudice.
Thirty years on, much has changed. In the west, people don’t die of AIDS as long as they can afford healthcare and medication. Now it’s entrenched in the Third World, particularly in Africa. We cannot be complacent.
Eötvös compresses Kushner’s seven hour saga into 2 1/2 hours.In the first part, vignettes of people experiencing death in their own way. Prior Walter (David Adam Moore) is a gay man dumped by his frightened lover. (Scott Scully). Roy Cohn (Kelly Anderson), the bully who thinks he can’t be touched, and Joe Pitt (Omar Ebrahim), the hapless married Mormon, who has to face the contradiction in his life. This concentrates dramatic focus on human relationships, and is very moving. Kushner doubled the parts, so the drama could extend beyond the immediate victims making it relevant for all society.
All roles, except the main protagonist Prior Walter, are doubled in the opera, too, Anderson and Ebrahim sing Ghosts of Plagues past, but Brian Asawa stands out. He sings no major role but a variety of subsidiaries, yet brings such assertiveness to them that they register well. His bright countertenor, these days mellowing lower in the range, extends Kushner’s ambiguity into the music.
Julia Migenes was impressive, too, as Harper Pitt, (male name, female role), Joe’s drug-ravaged wife who intuits his true nature and makes him confront his identity. She’s also Ethel Rosenberg, Roy’s nemesis and Angel Antartica. These are pivotal roles, which Migenes carries off with conviction. Janice Hall is less well served by the opera, her roles bordering on shallow stereotype.
Eötvös’s music illustrates the text nicely. Marimbas and electronics to create weird, surreal sounds, percussion to mark tension, lovely cello and violin melodies to enhance moments of individual reverie. As an extension of the play, the music is usefully mood-enhancing, so in that sense it works. He works following the text as it unfolds, which perhaps accounts for the episodic, reactive nature of the music. This works well in the first part, where the opera is spurred on by the dramatic momentum of Kushner’s vision.
In the second part, Kushner’s venturing into much more abstract territory, depicting Heaven and life after death. In the opera, the narrative isn’t coherent. Life (and the afterlife) isn’t necessarily coherent, so in a sense this unintelligibility is valid. But because music is abstract, this would have been an opportunity for Eötvös to write something distinctive. Opera is much more than film music. It’s more than illustrating text. It can reinforce the narrative with another dimension of original commentary, for opera is as much a composer’s response to a play than just the play itself.
I enjoyed this concert staging (directed by David Gately) because it showed how the simple resources of a concert staging can have a huge impact, done as thoughtfully as this. The lighting effects were superb, evoking huge vistas in the imagination. I “saw” the stars in the heavens and the lights of a night time city.
Ultimately, Angels in America works on stage because the subject is so powerful. It packs such an emotional punch that it would be hard not to be moved by the human drama in the first part. A lot of choices had to be made when Eötvös and his librettist reduced Kushner’s seven hour saga. That’s all the more reason why decisions had to be taken for maximum dramatic and musical effect. As an opera, Angels in America might have served the subject better had it been less dependent on replicating the play, and taken a more original vision.