New York City Opera concluded its season with Peter Eötvös’s Angels in America (2004), a condensed re-telling of Tony Kushner’s lengthy seminal play. This production also marks the beginning of NYCO’s commitment to present an LGBT-themed stage-work annually during Pride.
Eötvös’s work swirls together opera, musical and Sprechstimme, the soundworld dense with reeds (five kinds of clarinet and four of saxophone are used), Hammond organ, acoustic and electric guitars, percussion, which together with extended string techniques define large swathes of time and creates a foundation for abstract and disparate vocal lines. All of the singers were amplified, which helped to clarify the spoken dialogue. Angular intervals scale and plumb the entirety of the singers’ ranges, challenging their musicianship, and there is effective use of a vocal trio in the pit, acting as an orchestral texture and also to reinforce the main characters’ words.
Pacien Mazzagatti led the orchestra capably and traffic-copped the complex vocal entrances graciously. However, the balance was generally abysmal, as was the players’ volume compared to the singers, who could have done with much less augmentation had this flaw been corrected.
The production is confusing. Both Acts take place in an imposing room, walled by large black tiles and with a number of windows and doors. John Farrell’s sterile and morgue-like set works well for the hospital scenes but is otherwise redundant to the plot. Challenged by Mari Mezei’s compact, R-rated libretto, Sam Helfrich stages scenes to make them especially surreal and increasingly unclear as to what is real and what hallucination.
Aaron Blake as Louis Ironson was a revelation, demonstrating a rich trove of vocal abilities (belting, crooning, a floating falsetto) while giving a committed character portrayal. Wayne Tigges, the foul-mouthed Roy Cohn, was stentorian in the best sense of the word, his character easily the most demanding and delivered with aplomb and bite. Andrew Garland and Kirsten Chambers both deserved to be heard without being miked: their sizeable voices have much more nuance than technology allowed through.