Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Robertson @ Barbican Hall, London

26 March 2010

Pter Etvs’s opera, Angels in America, which graced Paris in 2004 but is only now enjoying its UK premiere, is based upon Tony Kushner’s eponymous two-part play.Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, was a commentary on the state of America in the 1980s when homosexuality was still taboo in many circles, Aids was rife, and the Republicans were in denial as to the plight of so many Americans.

Focusing on two relationships, one gay and one straight, the work always possessed enough dramatic intensity to suggest that it might work as an opera. Etvs was always aware, however, that much of the play commented upon a specific time in American history that no longer exists, and purposely took steps to draw out the piece’s more universal themes. In this way, the hard-nosed Roy Cohn becomes less a creature of 1950s McCarthyite America (although this element is by no means ignored) and more a type of man for whom demise is inevitable. Similarly, Etvs places more emphasis upon the passing of time, and, in a sense, uses the music as a metaphor for this.

Although it may not be to everyone’s taste, the score is certainly interesting. One might identify traces of Schoenberg, Berg, Stockhausen, Boulez and Sondheim amidst its notes, without the music really sounding like any of these composers. With hauntingly sliding sounds, cool notes that follow one after the other, and occasional cataclysmic crescendos, it crosses stylistic boundaries and defies categorisation. David Robertson’s conducting of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is exemplary, and in this concert performance (although it felt semi-staged to me), the shining of blue and purple light onto the players only adds to the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, given the loss of the original context, it is questionable whether the compensatory factors are sufficient. Much of the original play was vested in the way that nervousness, awkwardness and, above all, silence pervaded conversations, which music is not ideally suited to capturing. In addition, whilst the opera has cut the play from seven hours to two and a half, the parts that do remain stay very true to their source, with Mari Mezei’s libretto retaining some original dialogue. As a result, it sometimes feels as if the opera simply presents extended highlights of the original play, rather than building on any of its aspects or arguments.

The cast certainly perform well enough. As the gay lovers, the strong tenor and baritone voices of Scott Scully and David Adam Moore contrast to good effect, whilst Julia Migenes, Omar Ebrahim, Janice Hall, Kelly Anderson, Brian Asawa and Ava Pine all excel as they play a number of roles each. True, their voices are amplified across the auditorium, but you still have to a put a good sound into a microphone to get a good sound out.

Peter Etvs’s creation does possess a number of dramatic and highly moving moments, which ultimately mark it out as a good opera on the play, Angels in America. It is, however, more conservative than it purports to be, and I just wonder whether its mere existence will preclude a great one from ever being written.

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