Tony Kushner's Angels in America is an icon, bigger than "just" a play (or plays) because it commemorates the AIDS pandemic, or rather its first phase. In the early 80's, AIDS didn't have a name. It was terrifying because no-one knew why so many healthy young men were dying horrific deaths of what we called then "Karposi's Sarcoma", a cancer of the very old. Then, ostensibly straight men started dying too, and their partners, and even militant homophobes. Everyone panicked. Dreadful as the epidemic was, AIDs was a turning point. It exposed hypocrisy and prejudice, and ironically did a lot to bring homosexuality out of the closet.
For personal reasons, I've avoided the play as I lived through those times. "The haunted Castro and City Beach". Thirty years on, it's amazing how things have changed, and how rapidly the medical establishment responded. Remember the shock waves when Princess Diana kissed an AIDS patient? It was one time when society did pull together to fight what seemed then a plague of medieval proportions.Western people don't die of AIDS anymore, as long as they can afford health care and medication. AIDS isn't a gay thing - the plague has moved to the Third World. Angels in America could be transcribed for southern Africa.
Peter Eötvös turned it into an opera, premiered in 2004, and at last it's come to the Barbican, London. David Roberston conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the performance was recorded for later international, online broadcast on www.bbc.co.uk/radio3. Huge audience turnout: the upper floors of the Barbican were filled to capacity. Not for the music, perhaps, (many walked out), but because the subject is so important.
Eötvös compresses Kushner's work into 2 1/2 hours. In the first part, vignettes of people experiencing death in their own way. Prior Walter (David Adam Moore) is a gay man dumped by his frightened lover. (such things happened and can't be judged in hindsight). Roy Cohn (Kelly Anderson), the bully who thinks he can't be touched, and Joe Pitt (Omar Ebrahim), the hapless married Mormon. This concentrates dramatic focus on human relationships, and is very moving. Indeed, the fact that parts are doubled extends the scope into other lives. Brian Asawa is subtly excellent, in a variety of roles, his rich countertenor hovering beyond easy classification. Everyone dumps on non-white menials, even the dying. Some things don't change.
In the second part, Kushner extends his panorama to the afterlife and to Heaven with its angels of different continents. Prior is restored to life for reasons not particularly intelligible. But then fate is unintelligible. There are people who lived right through the heart of the storm who never became ill. It's much less coherent, but works in an impressionistic way. The first part needs reinforcement, and the abstraction of the second works in an impressionistic sort of way.
Eötvös's music illustrates the text nicely. Marimbas and electronics to create weird, surreal sounds, percussion to mark tension, lovely cello and violin melodies to enhance moments of individual reverie. As an extension of the play, the music is usefully mood-enhancing, so in that sense it works. On the other hand, I'm not sure it would work as music without the power of the subject matter and Kushner's dramatic momentum. It's episodic and reactive rather than development.
David Robertson led the BBC Symphony Orchestra. If anyone can give this music bite, he can. Very good singing and acting by the principals (named above) and other parts, who, just as in life, may seem minor but are actually valid in their own ways. Julia Migenes was superb as the neurotic housewife Harper Pitt (male name, female part). Janice Hall was hampered by cliche roles - a rabbi whose music veers towards almost racist stereotype, and an out-of-towner lost in the Bronx. I enjoyed this concert staging (directed by David Gately) because it showed how the simple resources of a concert staging can have a huge impact, done as thoughtfully as this. The lighting effects were superb, evoking huge vistas in the imagination. I "saw" the stars in the heavens and the lights of a night time city. When the Angel pops out of the organ loft, she's gleaming white. I enjoyed this, but ultimately, Angels in America isn't an opera in the sense that the music is fundamental to the concept. This music extends the play, in the way that well written film music extends the dominant narrative. But what a narrative, what a subject! It's too important to miss. Better and longer version of this NOW in Opera Today.
If you want to hear really original, intense music about death and the afterlife, seek out Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime, or better still, the Pierre Audi staging of Claude Vivier's Kopernikus. Neither of them are as immediately accessible as Eötvös, but musically, they're infinitely deeper and more rewarding. Kopernickus I didn't get at all, at first, but have grown to love intensely because there are so many levels in it. An angel jumps out of the sky, too! It was made in 1980 but so advanced it's still fresh and powerful. Get it here
Reves D'Un Marco Polo - Claude Vivier, Asko Ensemble