There may be an opera in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Indeed, the twin plays that make up the theatrical epic possess the deep passion, grand themes and potent language that conceivably can propel voices to musical heavens. But the North American premiere of Peter Eotvos’ avant-garde opera, which focuses on the work’s “fantasia” aspects at the expense of the “national themes” of its subtitles (“Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”), is oddly earthbound.
In his efforts to distill the two plays from seven hours to a mostly sung-through score just shy of 2½ hours, the Hungarian composer has clipped much of the works’ wings for this production by Opera Unlimited, a joint venture of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Opera Boston. What remains is, as one character says of her drug-induced state, “a very strange dream.”
It’s not just that the condensation by the composer’s wife, Mari Mezei, removes the play’s politics; rather, it lacks understanding of the theatrical moment. It lingers when it should move on and slashes scenes — especially in the second act — that give the work not only depth but sense.
The opera’s main narrative is delayed by a long oration by a Rabbi (mezzo-soprano Ja-Nae Duane) officiating at the funeral of one of the characters’ grandmothers. Roy Cohn (baritone Drew Poling) dazzles, then disappears, and at show’s end we wonder why he was there in the first place. Hannah Pitt (Duane again, among the double-cast roles), the Mormon mother, unaccountably finds understanding and union with her newfound gay friends. Nurse Belize (countertenor Matthew Truss) is a peripheral character waiting to find a purpose. Louis (tenor Matthew DiBattista) at one point plays an acoustic guitar, a mellow musical moment that doesn’t fit his hyperkinetic and guilt-ridden character.
Character and plot gaps abound, leading one to wonder if it would have been a better strategy to take each part of the epic separately, as Kushner did.
But the libretto is only one part of the production’s problem. The composer’s musical vocabulary here is mostly recitative, rhythmically abrupt and cacophonous. That works well in reflecting the urban soundscape, personal meltdowns of the characters and aural scoring of the plays’ dreams and nightmares.
While some of these layered, electronic sounds are effective and even amusing — Cohn on the phone dealing with a gibbering client, for example — one longs for the musical threads to reflect Kushner’s work, which weaves drama out of life’s complexities as he searches for connections in the chaos. Eotvos just wallows in dissonance and angst.
Gil Rose conducts a 21-piece orchestra (including three vocalists), while Steven Maler helms a production that presents his singers in mostly effective staging on a modest set.
But there are some clunky moments, such as a stagehand wiping the steps of blood from a previous scene as Joe Pitt (baritone Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley) and his wife, Harper (soprano Anne Harley), first try to deal with the secrets of their marriage.
It’s also an oddly chaste production. Joe and Louis bed down dressed in T-shirts and pants, and though there are hugs all around, there’s nary a kiss.
Clint Ramos creates a white, antiseptic limbo of a set, which includes onstage musicians in lab coats. The low-tech production, however, misses its money shot with the arrival of the angel (soprano Amanda Forsythe), which here ends the first act rather than the first play. She appears rather undramatically as just a very special nurse, an interesting angels-among-us concept that nonetheless diminishes a grand theatrical and potentially glorious musical moment.
Cast performs the musical challenges with assuredness and grace, and most handle the acting assignments well. Baritone Thomas Meglioranza has the presence, passion and voice to sustain the central character of Prior Walter. Forsythe and Harley’s sopranos radiate in the occasional lyrical touches that make welcome — albeit fleeting — appearances.
The opera premiered in Paris two years ago and was filmed for PBS to be shown later this year.