Angels in America

Peter Eötvös
Based on the play by Tony Kushner
Libretto by Mari Mezei
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, 26th March

More Life. The final words of Mari Mezei’s libretto, adapted from Tony Kushner’s play are also its moral. The earth is in its latter days, God has walked out on heaven and the pestilence ravages the globe. Peter Eötvös has taken Tony Kushner’s epic six hour, two part drama and made it into a single opera. The story has, inevitably, been simplified and focuses on two couples: one gay, Prior and Louis; one straight(ish), Harper and Joe. Prior has AIDS and at the crisis of his illness, an angel appears to him and names him as a prophet.

Extravagance, exuberance and exaggeration are at the heart of this ‘Gay Fantasia on National Themes’. The transition from supra-theatrical play to opera, then, is easy and logical: lines such as ‘beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiralling apart’ are so lyrical that they demand to be set to music. Mezei’s libretto maintains the sense of fragility and frailty that is so central to Kushner’s play and Eötvös’ music works with the text to enhance its sense of being close to a precipice.

The protagonist, a kind of modern tragic hero, is Prior. David Adam Moore sings his part like a wounded animal; the audience can’t help but warm to him. In an absurd but wonderful stroke from director, David Gately, the scenes with the angel are staged as parodies of the Annunciation, with Prior as a sullen and sceptical Virgin Mary.  Despite the grim circumstances of the action, there are flashes of humour to dispel the gloom thanks to Brian Asawa’s darkly comic Belize, (‘Don’t go crazy on me, girlfriend, I already got enough crazy queens for one lifetime. For two’), perhaps unsurprisingly sung by a countertenor .

Harper is sung in heart-breaking soprano by Julia Migenes who has all the frailty of the sparrow in winter. Eötvös writes swooping, unpredictable melodies for the character – exquisitely highlighting Harper’s ephemeral and brittle nature. Migenes effortlessly steals each scene she’s in. The Angel, thrillingly sung by Ava Pine, calls herself ‘The Pulse, the Pull, the Throb, the Ooze’ and is accordingly given melodies which pulse repeatedly on the same note or rapidly alternate between notes. The BBC symphony orchestra, conducted impeccably by David Robertson, plays the fiendishly difficult music confidently and enthusiastically: the violins tremble with the fragile Harper, the trumpets glory in the Angel’s glissandi and the percussionist gamely dashes between instruments.

Eötvös and Mezei’s decision to make one opera from two plays results in a tighter, tidier moral for the text. A criticism frequently levelled at Kushner’s play is that it focuses on the plight of white, middle-class AIDS sufferers and disregards the millions of sufferers in the third world, for the sake of a cosy ending. Eötvös’ opera lifts an earlier speech about ‘people who live through much worse’ and puts it at the end. Thus, we have a happy (if unexplained) ending and gain a Good Moral to go with it; we lose, however, something of the fascinating complexity of Kushner’s text

Kushner’s Angels in America was always too expansive for the stage: it needed music. Eötvös’ opera, far from distracting from the original story,  clarifies Kushner’s words and aids his original yearning for transcendence: ‘You are  fabulous creatures, each and every one…More Life

You can listen to this performance on Radio 3’s Performance on 3 on 7th April

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