When Tony Kushner’s diptych drama, “Angels in America” appeared in 1993, its approach to stagecraft was little short of revolutionary. Moreover, it was lionized for its brilliant writing as well its courage: not only does it depict unflinchingly the experience of AIDS sufferers but it also decries the callous sexual politics that allowed the AIDS epidemic in the U.S to spread nearly unfettered for much of the 1980s. The play’s two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, are epic in scope, totaling seven hours in performance. Librettist Mari Mezei and Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös (b. 1944) took on the task of creating an opera, Angels in America, which was premiered in Paris in 2004. The Boston University College of Fine Arts presented it at the BU Theater on Thursday evening. While Mezei restructures the play and scales it down to approximately two and a half hours, its storyline remains on the whole faithful to the original though Mezei and Eötvös decided to “not focus so much on the political aspect of the piece, but instead emphasize the passionate relationships and the dramatic suspense created by the strong writing, as well as the shapeless condition of the hallucinations.” While I found Eötvös’s atonal music easier to respect than to like, the emotional power of the drama came through in this accomplished performance shepherded by conductor William Lumpkin and stage director Jim Petosa.
One of Kushner’s distinctive conceits is giving multiple roles (a large one and several smaller ones, typically) to a single actor with no regard to gender, and Eotvos preserved this practice. The dramatic performances were generally as impressive as the musical ones, with no weak links in the ensemble cast. Baritone Benjamin C. Taylor convincingly covered a very large range of emotion and tessitura as Prior Walter, whose first-scene disclosure of his AIDS diagnosis to his lover Louis leads to any number of unforeseeable consequences. Tenor Jesse Darden made Louis Ironson a tortured figure, in love with Prior but utterly unable emotionally to see him consumed by the horrors of AIDS. The character Roy Cohn (based on the real-life figure) is abrasive, highly profane, and egotistical: in short, a boon to any singing actor gutsy and gifted enough to take on the role. Baritone Jorgeandrés Camargo was fearless, swearing up a storm, reveling in rule-breaking of all kinds, and showing Roy’s spiritual as well as physical attraction to his young associate, Joe Pitt. Baritone Darrick Speller depicted Joe as a quasi-tragic figure, torn by two dilemmas: (1) whether to stay in New York, as his wife prefers, or go to Washington to serve in the Reagan Justice Department (at the behest of Roy who has an unethical agenda), and (2) how to reconcile his Mormon faith and the homosexuality he has long suppressed. Joe Pitt’s neglected wife, Harper, as portrayed by soprano Kaitlin Bertenshaw, was alternately comical and poignant, her elaborate Valium hallucinations giving rise to the character Mr. Lies who “takes her” to various destinations. As Belize, longtime friend of Prior Walter and registered nurse, countertenor Bryan Pollock threw political correctness to the wind and swished with abandon but also demonstrated his abiding affection and concern for Prior; Pollock was also amusingly smarmy as Mr. Lies. As Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother, mezzo soprano Kylee Slee conveyed the peculiar mixture of Puritanism and maternal concern (especially for her troubled daughter-in-law), enhanced by the dowdy costuming of a Mormon matron from Salt Lake City finding herself in New York. And playing the Angel, the aptly named soprano Arielle Basile “part[ed] the air” vividly, first aurally, then visually, singing with mystery, celebration, in oracular style, etc. She was further enhanced by imaginative lighting and subtle use of electronic reverberation.
The opening scene was striking: a gray-bearded rabbi, portrayed by Slee, conducts a funeral service, evoking the experiences of Jews immigrating to the U.S. from eastern Europe in the early 20th century. The following scene (there was little or no time between scenes) was a whiplash contrast: in his law office Roy Cohn (Camargo) carries on multiple conversations, “playing” his multi-line phone like a virtuoso–ultimately leading the devout Joe Pitt to request that he stop taking the name of the Lord in vain. Later Roy receives his own AIDS diagnosis from his doctor, Henry (also depicted by Slee), but in a breathtaking display of sophistry, he views AIDS as a homosexual disease and homosexuals as men with zero clout, ergo Roy is “a heterosexual man who f—s around with guys” and his official, self-determined diagnosis is liver cancer. Camargo toyed wickedly with Slee, threatening to destroy Henry’s practice and reputation in the state of New York if he reveals Roy’s real diagnosis and private life. Part 1 includes a notable comic scene as well. When Hannah Pitt (Slee again) arrives from Salt Lake, intending to go to Brooklyn, she inadvertently ends up in the Bronx trying to get directions from a psychotic homeless woman. Bryan Pollock chewed the scenery hilariously and sang with demented energy; it was foresighted of Kushner to create a mad scene for a future opera. Part 1 ends with the first appearance of the Angel (Basile), arriving in Prior’s bedroom to show him his new duties as a prophet. Though the playing and singing were powerful, the stagecraft was disappointing to anyone who knows the plays: the Angel is supposed to crash spectacularly through Prior’s ceiling and hover in midair. With lighting and recorded sound, it’s quite possible to create a moment of real terror, but here she was simply revealed sitting atop scaffolding. Kushner advises that it’s fine if “the wires show”, but nonetheless “the magic should be thoroughly amazing.”
The original play’s Part 2 ties up multiple plot lines and explains many things—it is an hour longer than Part 1. My one reservation about Mari Mezei’s restructuring is that Part 2 omits or telescopes larger chunks of text than Part 1, and I was left sometimes with a feeling of congestion and hurrying. That said, the scene that looked most precarious on paper, a triple-split-scene, ended up being dramatically quite compelling: Joe and Louis, newly hooked up, are in bed together while Prior lies on his hospital bed in the background (Louis’s slumbering conscience?) and Harper is psychically sending needling messages to Joe from their Brooklyn apartment. Perhaps the most moving scene occurs later as Roy nears death in another hospital room and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Kaitlin Bertenshaw) appears, hoping to watch him die more miserably than she had (he had brought about her execution in 1953 by illegally colluding with the presiding judge). He seems to be delirious and imagine that she is his mother, asking her to sing to him. Somehow her maternal instincts finally override her will, and she sings gently to him in Yiddish. After a minute he suddenly sits up, gloating that he fooled her and “finally [made] Ethel Rosenberg sing!” —and abruptly dies. Camargo and Bertenshaw played and sang the scene flawlessly, though the audience seemed oblivious to the pun.
The dénouement occurs when Prior rejects his prophet status and visits heaven (temporarily) to address the Council of Angels. In the final debate between Prior and his Angel-mentor, Kushner’s writing is transcendent, echoing Shakespeare, and Eotvos sets it to phrases of considerable length, in contrast with much of the rest of the opera. Both Taylor and Basile were tireless in these taxing passages, singing with fervor and power. Prior, in particular, rises to a (high) pitch of righteous indignation at God’s abandonment of heaven and the angels but also notes that life, even when excruciating, is held sacred and craved by humanity. A mantra is repeated by the vocal quintet: “More life!” This quintet deserves a word of praise: they served admirably as a quasi-Greek chorus, commenting on the proceedings or echoing key dialogue through much of the opera. The quintet was comprised of Jennifer Klauder, Ruby White, Emily Harmon, Francesca Shipsey, and Kartik Ayysola. The orchestra, too, played colorfully and atmospherically, integrating well with the singers. This is not a musical version of Angels in America, complete with political fulminations; however, focusing on the drama of the interpersonal relationships, as Eotvos and Mezei have done, is a valid alternate approach. These talented young musicians from B.U., under the seasoned guidance of Lumpkin and Petosa, make a strong case for it.