Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
The Bitch is Back
January 16, 2013
So, after being on hiatus, how do I get started again? I say just jump right back in.
Opera composers have long relied on stage plays as a source of dramatic material. It seems a natural choice: take something stage worthy to begin with and set it to music. What could possible go wrong? On occasion composers have even taken the text of a play as a libretto in and of itself, though more often than not they use an adapted version of a text for their own music dramas. It’s as true now as ever, and a recent visit to Los Angeles by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös reminded us that these stage-to-stage endeavors are rarely as uncomplicated as they might seem. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under its “Green Umbrella” series gave the local premiere of Eötvös’ version of Angels in America, the landmark multiple award winning two-part drama from Tony Kushner. The opera received its world premiere in Paris in 2004 and has been seen in several different venues both in America and abroad. It has undergone many changes and re-orchestrations over the last decade from a small predominantly electronic instrument-based ensemble to the larger chamber orchestra-sized one that appeared in Los Angeles this week as part of a series of events Eötvös is participating in here this week.
In some ways this is asking for trouble. Angels in America is a play a lot of art loving folks here hold near and dear to their hearts, particularly here in Los Angeles where the play first stumbled forth onto the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. Gay men of a certain age view Kushner’s play as their play in a sense – or at least a highly biographical take on their own lives and communities in the not so distant past. But an opera, even a long one, can’t absorb all seven hours of Kushner’s miraculous, wordy wonder, and like composers before him, Eötvös had to make some hard choices, which he did with Kushner’s assistance and that of librettist Mari Mezel. What's left is a peculiarly non-American take on the most American of plays with much of the political context stripped away. Some grumbling was to be expected with such a devoted audience, but the grumbling seemed fair even beyond the devotion of an audience for the original work. Angels in America in this instance is as disappointing as often as it isn’t.
The problem lies in Eötvös’s focus almost exclusively on the magical realism in the piece. He is enamored with the hallucinogenic, fantastical dream sequences of the play from Prior Walter’s wrestling with the Angel to Roy Cohn’s extended dialogues with Ethel Rosenberg. They are undoubtedly some of the strongest moments in the play, and they are well served with Eötvös modernist dark discordant score. Sadly though a single piece of theater, the work falters without a clear overarching framework. Understandably cuts have been made, but it feels like they have been made again and again in the wrong places. Scenes are kept for the beauty of their language or their profound sentiment, but necessary connecting narrative elements are too easily lost, creating confusion in the final act as to exactly how things got to the point they have. Worse yet, Eötvös’ monochromatic score cuts against the proceedings as often as it seems to drive the action forward. Angels in America turns out to be as didactic as an opera as it is a play. But while that works on stage, it fails overall in the concert hall.
Musically, the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their guests availed themselves of this score, which featured both acoustic and electric instruments as well as amplified voices, expertly. Pablo Heras-Casado served as the conductor as he will for the world premiere of Eötvös’ new Violin Concerto written for Midori this coming weekend. He kept things well coordinated and relatively fleet for such a wordy libretto. Measha Brueggergosman appeared as the angel and gave a lusty, visceral performance as a supernatural creature in a sea of human neurosis and pain. David Adam Moore’s Prior Walter was the center of the large eight-person cast and handled singing about erections when it was called for with a believable ease. There’s as much spoken dialogue in the show as sung text and the cast included many other fine vocalists such as Julia Migenes and Janice Hall. All of the eight vocal actors on stage were joined by three other vocalists: Jamie Jordan, Abigail Fischer, and everyone’s favorite local barihunk Abdiel Gonzalez who provided layering and augmentation to the individual sung lines throughout in a sort of mini mirror chorus. It was one of Eötvös’ most clever and resounding musical effects in an evening that often provided drama and more than a little magic. Even if it did so at the expense of delivering a unified dramatic whole.
I feel like the overly manicured nature of the orchestrations (as beautiful as they were) worked against the nature of the drama being presented. The use of the vocal trio augmenting the principals was incredible, but was underutilized. I thought the performance was wonderful (especially from Measha Brueggergosman), but the text-setting/vocal writing was underwhelming and the orchestrations felt tepid.