10 Apr 2009
Angels in Frankfurt
Was Tony Kushner’s monumental play Angels in America in need of being musicalized?
Philippe Jaroussky lends poetry and poise to the sounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France
At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.
The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.
An opera dealing with — or at least claiming to deal with — the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary.
On April 10, 2015, Arizona Opera ended its season with La Fille du Régiment at Phoenix Symphony Hall. A passionate Marie, Susannah Biller was a veritable energizer bunny onstage. Her voice is bright and flexible with a good bloom on top and a tiny bit of steel in it. Having created an exciting character, she sang with agility as well as passion.
This second revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s 2005 production of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia seems to have every going for it: excellent principals comprising experienced old-hands and exciting new voices, infinite gags and japes, and the visual éclat of Agostino Cavalca’s colour-bursting costumes and Christian Fenouillat’s sunny sets which evoke the style, glamour and ease of La Dolce Vita.
English Touring Opera’s 2015 Spring Tour is audacious and thought-provoking. Alongside La Bohème the company have programmed a revival of their acclaimed 2013 production of Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) and the composer’s equally rare The Wild Man of the West Indies (Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo).
Mary Zimmerman’s still-fresh production is made fresher still by Shagimuratova’s glimmering voice, but the acting disappoints
When WNYC’s John Schaefer introduced Meredith Monk’s beloved Panda Chant II, which concluded the four-and-a-half hour Meredith Monk & Friends celebration at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, he described it as “an expression of joy and musicality” before lamenting the fact that playing it on his radio show could never quite compete with a live performance.
This year’s concert of the Chicago Bach Project, under the aegis of the Soli Deo Gloria Music Foundation, was a presentation of the St. John Passion (BWV 245) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
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.”