As critics attending a high-profile Angels in America reboot in London continue to mull over the zeitgeisty play’s contemporary relevance—and to pun the celestial daylights out of words like “heaven,” “winged,” and “seraph”—audiences across the Atlantic find themselves wrestling with a different kind of shapeshifter: that same sprawling “operatic” masterpiece, now reimagined as an actual, full-blown opera. 

Last night for a limited run at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City Opera gave Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös’s 2004 musical adaptation of Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” its Manhattan premiere. The ambitious production, which was meant to coincide with LGBT Pride Month in the city, made few improvements on the 1993 play that inspired it.

But it helped us rediscover some of the magic in Kushner’s best writing and coaxed a few truly exceptional performances from its lead actors—even if the struggling company seemed not always up to the challenge of lending this play-turned-opera the kind of support it probably needed to take flight.

In both play and opera, the narrative centers on two dissolving relationships. Prior Walter (Andrew Garland) and Louis Ironson (Aaron Blake) are struggling, in 1986, to work their relationship around Prior’s AIDS diagnosis. Straight Mormon couple Joe Pitt (Michael Weyandt) and Harper Pitt (Sarah Beckham-Turner) must meanwhile work theirs around his homosexuality and her valium addiction.

Anchoring the dysfunction in its political moment, real-life lawyer and closeted McCarthy lackey Roy Cohn (Wayne Tigges, in an impossible role) lies on his deathbed, desperately orating, conning, and deluding his way out of an AIDS diagnosis. From there the opera’s dark overtones turn mystical, with the arrival of an Angel (Kirsten Chambers), who has an important message for the reluctant prophet, Prior, to be elaborated on in Act Two of the opera (Part Two of the play).

In a filmed 2010 interview for the Barbican, Eötvös explained that what initially drew him to the adaptation project was the epic play’s “irreality”—its dreamy, liminal quality, its space- and place-lessness—which, for him, was “the best base cause for music.” Of course, for a whole host of other reasons, Kushner’s magical-realist meditation on AIDS and angels in Reagan-era New York City should be well suited for operatic treatment. It’s certainly grandiose enough. Clocking in at seven hours (even pennywise HBO could only whittle it down to six), the play comes in two evening-length parts and trumpets its themes at full blast.

This is a world in which characters are prophetic, historical, and speak in flowing, impressionistic screeds, not sentences. Here, human relationships assume moral and biblical dimensions, encouraging us to consider how certain ties of blood and obligation, and even certain syndromes, might change, break, or help us—or else condemn us all to fixity. The play also pulls several of opera’s most cherished tricks from its hat: visiting apparitions, mad scenes, historical figures, and spoken-word arias; vision sequences and full-blooded death scenes that linger on and never croak. All these make appearances in the play’s rising action.

Given everything that goes on, the opera’s most astonishing feat of wizardry is cutting Kushner’s work to two and a half hours, and to a mere seventeen scenes, while keeping the play’s most salient plot points. In this incarnation (with libretto supplied by Eötvös’s wife and frequent collaborator Mari Mezei), the supertitles let us luxuriate in the best of the playwright’s language, while allowing us to rediscover his innovations.

As in the play, the opera’s protagonists are often as unreal and quicksilver as their contexts, with one actor hopping between several roles in the span of an evening, shedding clothes, and generally float-perambulating between reality and fantasy. Sarah Castle deftly chewed her way through the part of pushy Mormon mom Hannah Pitt as well as the unhelpful Rabbi Chemelwitz who has some of the play’s best lines.

Appearing as both the jilted, hallucinating wife Harper and as Ethel Rosenberg, Beckham-Turner, a delightful Rosalba in NYCO’s Florencia last season, turned her fine soprano on two very different characters, and finds appropriate humor and anguish in both.

As Marxist-Jewish runaway lover Louis, Blake lent a pliable tenor to an unsavory role. Playing his abandoned, clairvoyant lover Prior, ox-figured Garland had a difficult time summoning the fleet badinage and “great style” the part demands, but acquittted himself well enough. And as The Angel, Chambers (who recently made her Met debut as Salome) brought much charisma to a tricky, symbol-spouting character—I found myself appreciating her acting chops even more than her hefty soprano.

Despite such triumphs, the opera’s distillations also have a way of drawing attention to the play’s more loquacious and philosophical excesses—as well as to the potential for caricature that several of Kushner’s slimmer roles can easily succumb to if not handled more sensitively. To pull off Joe Pitt, one ideally needs eyes that transmit pain whenever words fail: under Eötvös’s treatment, the character seemed somehow flatter than ever, and Weyandt’s woodenness on stage didn’t do much to salvage Joe’s sad-puppy tragedy, or clear up his motives.

And given all the exquisite soliloquizing he does in Kushner’s original, I found myself wondering why on earth Eötvös would pass on the chance to write a great big aria for Roy Cohn? In this production, Cohn—normally a rich, conniving shell of a man who can level mortality and morality in a single breath—is reduced to sad clown, and lots of croaking. All his best lines, though handily delivered by bass-baritone Tigges, came with none of the added impact, none of the visionary richness, a more imaginative scoring of the role could have offered.

I must say this lack of musical innovation—of bringing something novel to Kushner’s already well-established classic dialogue—became a growing concern as we all sat and watched. What can opera do for an already near-perfect play if the music doesn’t reveal anything, or take us anywhere, new? The composer’s idiomatic tonal palette is characteristically tinged in jazzy grays and deep blues, with nothing bright or playful, gay or sparkling, in sight.

And where music could easily have been used to amplify tense emotions, or underline the odd joke or especially dramatic line—Harper asking her husband if he’s “a homo,” for instance—these moments are often spoken, not sung, as though the composer had perhaps fretted that too much singing would spoil the punch.

As a play, Angels’ other notable breakthrough was always magical stagecraft, stretched to its limits: ceilings crack open and people travel to the Arctic. But perhaps for lack of proper budget, NYCO’s production felt mundane and threadbare on the night of its opening. Sets by designer John Farrell were dingy and desolate—a bed here, a hospital cot there, the famous Bethesda fountain in Central Park projected on a small screen, use your imagination I guess.

Costumes by designer Kaye Voyce were a duffel bag of hilariously unimaginative eyesores—a wash of sweatpants, ill-fitting ivory pantsuits, and I Heart NY tee-shirts. Harper must hover over her gay husband in one of the ugliest, marmish floral dress-and-cardigan numbers I’ve ever seen. On the ghosts of Past Priors (intrepidly played by Tigges and Weyandt) we are treated to a pair of terrible gold slippers and this medieval-tunic-with-felt thing that could only have come from Abracadabra (NYCO, your budget is showing!). I’ll save you the letdown of reading of the tinsel halos you’ll apparently encounter in heaven.

Director Sam Helfrich is right to point out that we must judge a new opera on its own terms, and remarks in his program notes that in this retelling, formerly niche themes have become more universal: “We find ourselves in a world that is not a ‘gay’ world or an ‘AIDS’ world, but rather.. .a world all of us can identify with,” he writes.

But what, I might ask, is the point of a gay opera that isn’t, well, very gay? Aside from a few naked men cameos and I guess the addition of a countertenor playing flamboyant nurse Belize (Matthew Reese, who should have had more stage time), much of the campy, queeny fun of the original has been stripped from the show. (Even its one drag scene was played fairly “straight” in this incarnation. And in a truly ugly bathrobe/kimono that I don’t ever want to see on a queen.) Gone, too, was all the sassy, “ma belle nègre” repartee with Prior that gave Belize some of his juiciest moments in the original.

Without these moments of ribald subversion, so much of what gives both play and opera its niche political edge—that radical irreverence that tears holes in people’s programs and forces them to think, and argue, and mourn—is gone. If every staging of Angels in America is also a story of AIDS and how it’s remembered by the gay men who suffered, opera can and probably should participate in the memorial. “I wanted to see if I could make Ethel sing,” Cohn quips before he passes. I’m still not sure she can.

Photo: Sarah Shatz