Angels in America, Barbican, London

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Peter Eötvös’s opera attracted a large audience for its UK premiere, and deservedly so. This was a beautifully prepared, brilliantly executed rendition of a work that speaks a contemporary language – the F-word much in evidence – without patronising its listeners musically.

The operatic flowering of Eötvös, a Hungarian born in 1944, is one of the more curious developments in classical music these past 20 years, for he spent his early career as dogsbody to Stockhausen and Boulez. So complete has been his conversion to, shall we say, the more lucrative side of new music, that three years ago he pulled off a world premiere at Glyndebourne, Love and Other Demons – which I hated. I didn’t enjoy the 2004 Paris premiere of Angels in America either, but warmed to it in this shorter two-hour version, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and an excellent cast under David Robertson.

By reducing Tony Kushner’s epic Pulitzer-winning Aids play to a manageable length, Eötvös and Mari Mezei, his librettist wife, have achieved the seemingly impossible: they have kept the essentials of character and comedy while acknowledging the operatic potential of the angels. It’s still a deeply flawed piece of music theatre. The problem is not the smell of Broadway – the spoken dialogue, the twangy orchestration, the trio of singers plumping up the instrumental texture. Nor does Eötvös’s (unnecessary) insistence on vocal amplification get in the way. No, it’s the lack of dramatic pacing.

The sung text unfolds like slowed-up speech and the plot is shapeless, with no sense of climax – in spite of a spectacular entry for one of the Angels (the charismatic Ava Pine) at the end of the first act. Plenty of scenes lend themselves to drama – those involving Aids-denying lawyer Roy Cohn, for example, and the gay reverie in Central Park – but Eötvös’s gutless music neuters them.

David Gately’s fluent “concert staging” made us feel we were in the theatre – quite an achievement on the Barbican platform. David Adam Moore (Prior Walter) and Kelly Anderson (Roy Cohn) created three-dimensional characters. Julia Migenes and Janice Hall were larger-than-life earth mothers, while the radiant Brian Asawa was the nearest I’ve heard to a soprano castrato. ()

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