At one point late in the first act of Hungarian composer-librettist team Peter Eotvos and Mari Mezei’s English-language opera premiere of “Angels in America,” Hannah Pitt (Roberta Alexander), the Mormon mother of closet homosexual Joe (Omar Ebrahim), makes her way up a side aisle of Paris’ Chatelet Theater, wondering aloud where she is. Well, audiences familiar with this material, whether through Tony Kushner’s singular play or Mike Nichols’ deeply empathic HBO telefilm of it, could find themselves asking much the same thing, for somewhat different reasons.
The title remains, as do characters who seem almost to have entered the collective American consciousness via Kushner’s searching, almost seven-hour epic. But somewhere along the way, the stuffing has been knocked out of the source, along with all pathos, wit and — most astonishingly for an opera conceived in Europe — any hint of politics. And the result of a defanged “Angels” is to betray the play’s raison d’etre, no matter how skillfully the opera places itself musically in this post-Stockhausen age.
Eotvos, now 60, has made a specialty out of refashioning operas out of plays, with “Angels” following his versions of Genet’s “The Balcony” and Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” in which the Prozorov women were played by countertenors.
In aural terms, Eotvos paid his dues in the avant-garde atelier of Karlheinz Stockhausen and went on to be a protege of Pierre Boulez, whose shimmering soundscapes find various echoes here. (The usual pit orchestra has been replaced by 16 players and three vocalists.) But no amount of musical innovation can counter the audible thud made by a piece that, title notwithstanding, displays a distinctly tin ear for anything to do with America (especially Kushner’s very Jewish America). The lapse is only reinforced by the presence of so many notable Americans in the cast: Julia Migenes and Barbara Hendricks among them, alongside lesser-known baritone Daniel Belcher in the pivotal role of Prior Walter.
With the exception of Alexander, an alternately commanding and warm presence across multiple roles (the opera apportions the parts differently from the play), the actors look almost entirely at sea, and who can blame them? Divest “Angels” of its subtitle (“a gay fantasia on national themes”), and you risk diluting a story whose narrative of displaced desire is merely one part of a work steeped in philosophy, political fury and what can only be described as a Kushnerian poetic so extensively filleted here as to have lost all meaning.
“Angels” the opera is less than half as long as the play but seems infinitely longer in a production from 28-year-old Philippe Calvario that unfolds against set designer Richard Peduzzi’s drab backdrops, reducing most of the characters to so many stick insects — when, that is, the libretto by Eotvos’ wife Mezei hasn’t got there first.
On the evidence of Donald Maxwell’s arm-waving, clownish perf, you would never guess that Roy Cohn is one of the greatest, most fearsome roles in contemporary theater, but then again it’s faintly ludicrous to ask Migenes (a onetime screen Carmen) to play hallucination-prone Harper Pitt when she looks old enough to be the mother of Ebrahim’s lumpen, entirely unmoving Joe.
While opera is not straitjacketed by realism the way theater so often is, the glory of “Angels” onstage is the way Kushner upends naturalism, folding a story that runs to soap opera only in its crudest, baldest outlines (i.e., as in this opera) into a stylistic kaleidoscope to match his thematic one. That’s just one reason why “Angels” actually might have made a more than viable opera: In failing to play by the rules, it releases all manner of possibilities — making it that much more dismaying to find a treatment that offers up none. (Well, OK, I did like the various angels’ wings suspended in mid-air near the end.)
Still, I can’t have been the only transplanted New Yorker in the opening-night audience (the opera has now completed a five-perf Paris run but has been talked about for an engagement in Hamburg next summer) who listened aghast as one quip after another either fell flat or were replaced by a prosaic text profligate in its use of the f-word, as if no one bothered to reflect that Kushner luxuriates in language in exact contrast to the way Mezei’s libretto limits it. Certain key phrases remain — Derek Lee Ragin’s ineffectual Belize sings of “the world only spin(ning) forward,” a Kushnerian leitmotif — but they hang in the air, disembodied, like those same wings, refusing to come emotionally to land.
The play’s defining quartet of young lovers by default gets the most stage time in the opera, though it’s bizarre to find the angst-ridden, echt-ethnic philosophe Louis here turned into a guitar-playing slacker who looks like he’d be happier listening to James Taylor than dissecting his own riven psyche. (Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu is the hapless performer.) Playing Prior, Belcher brings a firm voice to Kushner’s demand for “more life,” an anthemic embrace which is, at least, shared by the opera.
But it’s a measure of what’s gone missing that Prior’s reference to “terrible times” in this context merely seems whiny and self-involved. It’s the bleating of a man who hasn’t earned our attentions in an operatic “Angels” that needs infinitely more life if it is ever to soar.