(Correction: Because of reporting errors, the review of Opera Unlimited's production of ``Angels in America" in Saturday's Living/Arts section incorrectly credited the projection designer, who was Zachary Borovay, and gave a wrong first name for the scenery and costume designer, Clint Ramos. Also, the reviewer misspelled the name of Roy Cohn, the corrupt lawyer character in the opera.)
Tony Kushner's ``Angels in America" is an epic, historical, political, personal , and apocalyptic drama that is also an opera waiting to happen. It is full of larger-than-life characters who deliver long aria-speeches of interior questioning; characters meet each other in dream landscapes and there are interwoven, simultaneous episodes that resemble operatic ensembles. There is even a grand death scene.
Whether Peter Eötvös's musical adaptation fulfills the play's operatic potential remains an open question, despite the overall excellence of Opera Unlimited's American premiere production which opened last night. The extreme condensation of the play in Mari Mizei's libretto jettisons all but the personal and apocalyptic dimensions. Kushner's demotic torrent of language, drawn from the melting pot of ethnic and regional American speech, makes the characters complex and surprising, the way people are. ``I wish you could be more true to your ethnic profile," says Prior Walter, a man living with AIDS, to the Mormon mother of his faithless lover. The abridged text reduces the characters to stock figures, and leaves even more loose ends than the play does; it is never clear what the foul-mouthed lawyer Roy Cohen is doing here.
And until the end the music does not illumine the inner life of the people. Basically the score provides a kind of soundscape surrounding the text, some of which is spoken rather than sung. Only the Angel really gets to cut loose and sing. That said, Eötvös provides a very elegant, supple, varied soundscape that serves as a kind of punctuation for the words, or sweeps across it like a yellow highlighter pen.
In the scene in heaven near the end, which is problematic in the theater, the music finally rises to the occasion, carrying emotion on a powerful current that continues through the last scene of reconciliation and promise, with its urgent prayer for ``More life."
The Virginia Wemberly Theatre is a tricky environment for this piece. Sixteen of the 20 instrumentalists are onstage, restricting the playing area. Chris Ramos's all-white platform set suggests an antiseptic hospital; his brilliant costumes range from anonymous scrubs to revelations of character. Christopher Ostrom's lighting and projections are powerfully evocative.
Steven Maler's stage direction is occasionally compromised by budget, and he has to make do without the most famous image in contemporary theatre, the Angel bursting through the ceiling of Prior Walter's apartment. But his work is always imaginative, economical, pertinent and emotionally precise and he can create unforgettable images.
As in the play, each member of the cast has one principal role and takes on subsidiary parts. Anne Harley was vocally and dramatically outstanding as the neurotic, pill-popping Harper and as Ethel Rosenberg , Roy Cohen's angel of death. Amanda Forsythe's voice soared tirelessly aloft as the Angel. Matthew Truss was both campy and sweetly truthful as the gay nurse Belize and his countertenor boasts both beauty and volume. Ja-Naé Duane was sympathetic as the Mormon mother and Nikolas Sean-Paul Nackley did a nice job as her troubled closety son (who turns out to be the villain of the play, although we don't see that in the opera). Matthew di Battista as the cowardly lover who deserts Prior Walter managed to make the character troubled and therefore understandable. Drew Poling was more a sit-com fixture than a moral monster as Roy Cohn, but he wasn't dull. And as Prior Walter, afraid of death and eager to live, Thomas Meglioranza was immensely touching, and even suggested Prior's mordant, all-seeing wit.
The orchestra, which included three backup singers that echo the characters' words -- Kristen Watson, Krista River and Donald Wilkinson -- was alert, assured, and responsive. And the applause that greeted the gifted and committed conductor Gil Rose when he appeared to begin the second act showed that the audience recognizes him for the local hero he is.