10 Apr 2009
Angels in Frankfurt
Was Tony Kushner’s monumental play Angels in America in need of being musicalized?
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English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).
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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.”