The Fort Worth Opera’s second spring festival has been jump-started with a provocative production that will undoubtedly set traditionalists to twitching. Angels in America hits the audience with a double whammy: modern music (really modern music) and a plot that thoroughly explores issues of gay relationships and AIDS.
Perhaps in awareness that more conservative patrons may feel it’s pushing the envelope a little too far, the company is staging Angels in Scott Theatre in Fort Worth’s arts district rather than in Bass Hall downtown, where the festival’s other productions will be.
Angels in America is a pretty radical compression of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play. The music is by the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös; the text is by Mari Mezel. Eötvös is a longtime associate of Pierre Boulez and a member of musical organizations ideologically opposed to the softening of contemporary music to appeal to a mass audience.
So no one should go to Scott Theatre expecting the lyricism of John Corigliano or Carlisle Floyd. This is spiky, uncompromising stuff. At times it’s witty. In one scene, a character is on the phone. His unseen interlocutor is heard not as a human voice but as a weird sound effect produced by who-knows-what-means. This brings smiles. But at the end of the opera all that remains in memory is a sort of general sense of musical atmosphere, not specific ideas. And it’s often not clear that there is a connection to what’s going on onstage.
There are scenes in the play that are not entirely clear, either. Sometimes it’s a bit like watching Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, though Thomson’s music is, of course, from another universe than Eötvös’. The story line is fairly clear, though: A gay couple splits up when one contracts AIDS and the other can’t deal with it. A heterosexual couple splits up when the husband finally gives in to his homosexual impulses. The husband and the man who can’t deal with his partner’s AIDS get together. The dying man is saved from death by angels.
Aside from the subject matter, the frequent use of four-letter words and an R-rated scene or two may repel some who are unaccustomed to contemporary theater.
One huge plus is a virtuoso performance by the superb cast. There are eight soloists playing 21 roles, plus a vocal trio, and despite the obvious musical and dramatic hurdles, the opera flows smoothly. I was particularly impressed on opening night by Ava Pine, who plays the chief angel; David Adam Moore, who plays the AIDS patient; and Kelly Anderson, who plays Roy Cohn and a couple of other roles (there are a couple of portrayals of real-life characters). Christopher Larkin conducts an impressive instrumental ensemble.
Director David Gately is due some credit for keeping the play consistently interesting. The scenic and video designs by Peter Nigrini are a highly inventive enhancement (there’s a nod to Bass Hall’s trumpeting angels).
Angels in America will be repeated five more times through June 7. Fort Worth’s opera festival will continue with Turandot, opening Saturday; Lucia di Lammermoor, opening Sunday; and Of Mice and Men, opening May 31.