10 Apr 2009
Angels in Frankfurt
Was Tony Kushner’s monumental play Angels in America in need of being musicalized?
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.
On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.
New Co-Production Tristan und Isolde with Metropolitan: Simon Rattle and Westbroek electrify Treliński’s Opera-Noir.
In an operatic world crowded with sure-fire bread and butter repertoire, Opera San Jose has boldly chosen to lavish a new production on a dark horse, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
Was Tony Kushner’s monumental play Angels in America in need of being musicalized?
Peter Eötvös seemed to think so, and it was with excitement (tempered by trepidation) that I took my seat at the wonderful black box space of the Bockenheimer Depot to witness Frankfurt Opera’s admirable production of Mr. Eötvös’ operatic take on the Tony Kushner opus.
Excited because the source material (text adaptation by Mari Mezei) is generally numbered among the finest US plays of the 20th century, and the theatrical masterpiece of the 90’s. Apprehensive because the world-famous seven hour epic was already operatic in its scope and theatricality, and profoundly rich in its complex and detailed character development. How would it fare pared down to less than half that length, with the music further slowing and consuming what remained?
Mr. Eötvös, a Hungarian composer who has long made France his home, had widely variable success. It was difficult to know why he chose to have characters sing certain lines, and simply speak many others, straight out of the play text. The musicalized prose did not always seem to “sing” while some of the more poetic expressions ripe for song remained stubbornly grounded in normal speech.
Nina Bernsteiner (The Angel)
The piece was also clearly conceived to have the singers amplified, and they sported those head mikes that are the bane of every contemporary musical. While the sound design was quite fine overall, it has to be said there were (only a few) moments that the mixing did not flatter the singers. However, given the expanse of the Depot and the density of the orchestration, mikes were a grudging necessity.
The orchestrations and instrumental writing were masterful, arguably the most successful element of the composition. In addition to the usual strings, brass, and winds, Eötvös artfully deployed electric keyboards, saxophones and guitars; unleashed a veritable cornucopia of exotic percussion sounds; and even cleverly incorporated extra-musical elements like a siren, telephone ring, and recorded sound effects.
The vocal lines are interwoven with this pleasant wash of sound, but while they were most usually buoyed by it, they too often competed with it for interest. While I recall many wonderful instrumental effects, there is really only a handful of remarkable vocal expressions that I can summon up. This is not to fault the talented singers, nor is it meant to impugn the composer’s real skill at setting the text as idiomatic, generally intelligible American English.
As the drug-addled wife Harper, Jenny Carlstedt gave the performance of the night. Not only did her acting bring back favorable memories of Marcia Gay Harden in the show’s Broadway run, but her singing, by turns plangent or accusatory, was spot on. Doubling as Ethel Rosenberg, she arguably contributed the show’s most affecting moment in Ethel’s two scenes, sung with heartfelt, melting tone, and floating her lovely voice over the moaning, sustained lower string passages. Gorgeous.
Remaining in the “beautiful voice” category, young countertenor Jeffrey Kim was a revelation in his several roles. While the lowish tessitura of Mr. Lies’ first scene initially hampered crisp communication of words, his assumption of the nurse Belize was exceptional. Throughout, he sang with richness of tone. Peter Marsh, too, contributed handsome, well-schooled vocalizing as Louis (the tortured character who deserts his AIDS-afflicted partner). His wonderful lyric tenor was always perfectly placed, his diction was superb, and his acting was committed and natural. A fine artist.Dietrich Volle (Roy Cohn), Nathaniel Webster (Joseph Pitt)
I also liked Michael McCown in the pivotal role of Prior Walter. He was personable and engaging, his stage manner unaffected, and his lyric voice had ping and polish. The role dominates the second act, and the frequent leaps up to outbursts of exposed high notes did seem to tire him a bit by work’s end. Still, this was a fine achievement, and his final moments built around the phrase “more life” were meaningful.
Glamorous Christin-Marie Hill possesses a rich, vibrant instrument which she used to good effect, most especially as Hannah, Joe Pitt’s Mormon mother. The crucial role of Joe was taken (sort of) by baritone Nathaniel Webster, whom I had so enjoyed as Britten’s Tarquinius last season. Sadly, the indisposed Mr. Webster was unable to sing the role, but rather acted it while tenor Kent Carlson voiced it from the pit. After a bit of compensatory mugging at the start, Webster settled down to a nice physical presentation. While Mr. Carslon’s singing was solid, his speaking voice came across as a bit effete and high-pitched for this sexually-conflicted Mormon lawyer-husband.
Nina Bersteiner worked so hard as the Angel that I wanted to like her a bit more than I did. The cruelly difficult range of the role, coupled with broken phrases and repeated syllabic vocal lines made her efforts at times seem, well, effortful. When her attractive soubrette was allowed to simply soar, it was a very enjoyable effect. Dietrich Volle worked hard, too, as Roy Cohn. Too hard, it seemed. In trying to be every moment “the cursing, vile, dirty bastard,” Herr Volle spent a lot of time barking vowels, and neglecting consonants. If you are old enough to remember White Fang’s comic gruntings on the “Soupy Sales Show” you would have some idea of the effect. Thankfully, Volle settled down considerably in the second half and his physical commitment resulted in a compelling death scene.
Forming the Vocal Trio, Anja Fidelia, Diana Schmid, and Leszek Solarski were just tremendous. They made major contributions throughout the evening, with flawlessly sung interjections, stylishly tailored phrasing, and superb background chorals.
Stefanie Pasterkamp’s simple and creative physical production capitalized on the vast expanses of the Depot by devising a large, steeply raked stage that mirrored the tiered audience seating, interrupted in the middle by the pit. White flooring in the center aisle extended through the musicians and up the center of a divided stage ending in a very steep, narrowing set of white stairs topped by a high platform.
Stage right had a quasi-excavation site, in the center of which was a monolithic plastic block of ice, with a richly upholstered chair at its summit. Stage left was dominated by a hospital bed which hovered menacingly far upstage until it was required as part of the action. In a startling effect, the nurse let go of the bed which started plummeting down the slope to the audience until an unnoticed rope stopped its progress with a violent jerk. The whole stage was unbounded by masking, legs, or backdrop, creating the effect of an austere island by capitalizing on the industrial structure of the Depot itself.
Ably abetted by Joachim Klein’s dramatically supportive lighting, Ms. Pasterkamp also provided character-specific costumes of considerable imagination and color. The only curious mis-judgment was the glam-girl look for the Old Rabbi at the top of the piece, with nothing remotely suggesting the Jewish cleric. It got us off to a rather odd start.
Johannes Erath’s clean stage direction was unfussy, focused, and efficient. He drew deeply internalized, and strongly felt performances from his cast. The device of having a naked male extra be the symbolic sexual magnet for Louis and Joe’s tenuous mating ritual in which they touched the intermediary as if in physical contact with each other, was poetic and meaningful. The pairings (and un-pairings) of the characters were supported by well-considered movement and groupings.
Fantasy scenes happily resisted going over the top. I liked the “concept” of having the Rabbi, the Angel, and the naked extra entering from the back of the house through the center aisle, but the reality of it was that until the characters got toward the very front of the audience, it was very difficult to turn back and see them. More effective was having the singers crawl up side ladders from the Depot floor to mount the stage, furthering a sense of collective improvisation.
A real problem with shearing the play down to libretto proportions is that much of the sardonic humor of the original text was lost. Well, really, make that “all.” Mr. Erath managed to inject a few lighter touches into the evening, such as the sudden appearance of the two garrulous theatre box denizens from Sesame Street. Otherwise, it was a pretty unrelentingly sober night about a sober topic.
Another problem with this musical realization is that the dissonant and disjointed twelve tone sounds are still foreign to most ears. Not unpleasing to be sure, just unsettling. It took me about a quarter of an hour to become comfortable with the musical vocabulary. That is not the fault of the truly excellent conductor, Erik Nielsen who displayed an awesome understanding of the score, and shaped it with loving skill.
There were AIDS-related displays in the lobby to further underscore the work’s message, and it seems churlish to criticize the effectiveness of such a thoughtful piece about a tragedy of such deep concern to all of us. Sadly, having had the AIDS crisis in our collective consciousness for almost twenty years now, I fear time has numbed us a bit to the horrors of the plague, and it has become perceived as a manageable condition rather than the virtual death sentence it initially was. I applaud all concerned for their diligent service to this production of Angels in America and for challenging us to keep engaged with solving this continuing health crisis.
But at the end of the night, it seemed that the audience responded more to the good intentions and the individual achievements, rather than to any soul-wrenching dramatic revelations or musical ravishments. While joining Prior Walter in fervently wishing us all “more life,” I also left wishing for “more musical drama.”