Some angels

Opera Unlimited does Tony Kushner, plus Elizabeth Keusch, Roger Tapping, Donal Fox, and John Harbison
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  June 21, 2006

BETRAYED AND VISIONARY: Thomas Meglioranza excels as Prior.
Whatever anyone thinks of the actual opera, congratulations are again in order to Opera Unlimited, the collaboration between music director Gil Rose’s Opera Boston and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project, this time for bringing to Boston the American premiere of Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös’s attempt to make an opera out of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, his Pulitzer-winning play about the AIDS epidemic and the collapse of public and personal values under Reagan (one remaining performance, June 24 at the Majestic Theatre). Three years ago, Opera Unlimited brought us one of Boston’s most exciting productions of a contemporary opera, Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face. The following year, it gave us yet another memorable production of a contemporary political opera, John Adams’s Nixon in China. The stage director of Powder Her Face, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s Steven Maler, did another skillful job with Angels. Clint Ramos designed the elegant stage set and characterful costumes. The cast was talented, game, and heroic in learning this challenging new work. The opening performance at the Calderwood Pavilion was preceded by a well-deserved testimonial to Larry Kessler, who has just retired after 23 years of running the AIDS Action Committee.

Kushner’s play — really two evening-length plays — may be the most ambitious American script since Eugene O’Neill, with a complex network of interconnections that includes right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg (whom Cohn prosecuted), a Mayflower-descended WASP with AIDS, his Jewish lover (who abandons him), a gay black nurse, a rising but closeted young Mormon law clerk, his valium-addicted wife, his seemingly ultra-conservative Mormon mother, and an Angel. The play, with its verbal coloratura, arias, and duets, is already a kind of opera. What does music add, especially when this six-hour epic has been reduced by more than half?

Eötvös’s music provides atmosphere and a sense of delusional “irreality” — in a range of styles that include wailing saxophone blues and creepy percussion underlying ominous confrontations, with a high-lying, heavenly septet of angels near the end. A trio of singers in the orchestra provide a kind of halo of sound as they repeat or anticipate what the characters are singing or mimic the babble on the other end of a telephone. The libretto by Mari Mezei, Eötvös’s wife, includes overlapping scenes, and therefore overlapping voices.

Maler’s staging of these montages is often revealing. The basic set is a tilted hospital room — everything takes place in it, including a pick-up scene in Central Park between the guilt-ridden lover who can’t handle his companion’s illness and the young Mormon. The betrayed lover’s hospital bed remains right in the middle of the cruising area, so the betrayal becomes even more palpable. Maler pulls his punches, though, by having the new sexual partners crawl into bed with their pants on (nothing here remotely as daring as the oral sex in Powder Her Face). Projection designer Zachary Borovay substitutes an effective squirmy light show for the iconic angel wings in the play.

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