Angels in America, Barbican, London<br/>Counterpoise, Kings Place, London

Kushner's play about Aids gets a new lease of life
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The Independent Culture

Unobtrusiveness is not a quality generally prized among opera composers.

Yet Peter Eotvos's 2004 adaptation of Tony Kushner's epic two-part play, Angels in America, is a model of unobtrusiveness. Sliced down to little more than a third of its original length by librettist Mari Mezei, Kushner's text retains its proud wit, righteous anger and Whitmanesque joy in the expressive power of language, spoken and sung by amplified voices over a labile current of exultant strings, nostalgic brass, honeyed clarinets, idling guitars and glittering percussion.

Too Broadway for Britain's opera companies, not melodic enough for musical theatre, Angels was given its UK premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra last week as part of the Barbican's Present Voices series. The year is 1985. Ronald Reagan is in the White House, Aids has devastated Manhattan's gay community and azidothymidine (AZT) is, as yet, being trialled on only 38 HIV-positive patients. Abandoned by God in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the angels are hammering at the doors of those mortals who might listen to them: Prior (David Adam Moore), adrift in a nightmare of celestial visions, diarrhoea and Kaposi's sarcoma; Louis (Scott Scully), the lover who leaves him; Joe (Omar Ebrahim), a young, married Mormon lawyer led gently out of the closet by Louis; Harper (Julia Migenes), Joe's Valium-addicted, lonely wife; Roy Cohn (Kelly Anderson), angry scourge of Red America, jealous hoarder of AZT, and Kushner's Lucifer.

Why set this hugely successful play and film to music? Kushner was raised by musicians. You can hear his musicality in the gawky rhythms of a loving confession, the vicious syncopation of a one-sided argument and the rubber-band snap of a cute one-liner. Most clearly of all, you can hear it in the declamatory repetitions – "I ... I ... I ... I ... I ... I am the Bird of America!" – of the Angel's first appearance, whether spoken by Emma Thompson in the film of the play, or sung, as here, by coloratura soprano Ava Pine to a tsunami of pulsing violins. Who knows whether this dazzling, eight-vagina'd creature was the first character whose music made itself known to Eotvos – certainly hers is the most conventionally operatic voice in a naturalistic vocal score – but every one of Kushner's creations has a signature soundworld.

For Roy, there is the moody after-hours hum of a Hammond organ and a babble of voices from within the orchestra. For Louis, there's the pan-stick optimism of a Broadway band. For Prior, the night-sweat, stomach-cramp twang of an electric guitar. For guileless, god-fearing Joe, the pure open fifths of pioneer America. Harper's hallucinogenic, starry strings clear the way for Mr Lies' narcotic travelogue (sung by Brian Asawa), his acoustic guitar now disguised as a ukelele, now a bouzouki. Then there are melodies from the Old World: the pithy shtetl lullaby crooned by Ethel Rosenberg (Migenes again) at the deathbed of the man who sent her to the electric chair, the flattened sixths of the weary Rabbi (Janice Hall) at Louis's grandmother's funeral. Even the illness has its motif, an unresolved, introspective fragment for solo viola.

Though this patchwork of individual voices is closer in effect to the Aids Memorial Quilt than it is to the thematic sweep of grand opera, David Gateley's dynamic semi-staging made a strong argument for a full production of Angels. Under David Robertson, the BBCSO and their vocal trio (Ann De Renais, Patrick Ardagh Walter and Wendy Nieper) moved from style to style fluently and precisely, despite the cluttered amplification. Ebrahim and Migenes brought several decades of extra pathos to Joe and Harper, the latter as steeped in seen-it-all sorrow as a Marie's Crisis chanteuse, while Scully's guilty recoil was all too human. In a multi-parted ensemble work, Pine's incandescent Angel, Anderson's brawling, bitter Roy and Moore's petulant, witty, courageous Prior were outstanding.

Gothic horror was the main course in Counterpoise's Kings Place recital, with a side-dish of tongue-in-cheek. Loved to Death contrasted two treatments of Edgar Allen Poe: Ross Lorraine's bone-china setting of "The Oval Portrait" for narrator, violin, saxophone, piano and trumpet, and Jean Hasse's shivery, brushed-metal accompaniment to Watson and Webber's 1928 surrealist film, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Mauricio Kagel's comic conceit for piano, metronome and F W Murnau's silent movie, MM51/Nosferatu, punctuated the gloom with some crazed cackling from pianist Iain Farrington. Saxophonist Kyle Horch followed with a soulful reading of Ryo Noda's Maï, the swan-song of a suicidal Samurai and the weakest piece in an otherwise pungent programme.

Based on D M Thomas's reworking of Pushkin's "Egyptian Nights", John Casken's Deadly Pleasures conjured the decadent cruelty of Cleopatra's court and salty luxury of her bedchamber, with distinct melodic characters for each of the three suitors and a sultry wash of piano for the oversexed queen, narrated with feline confidence by Johanna Lonsky. Wry and provocative stuff for the summer festival circuit.

Next Week:

Pianist Angela Hewitt deserts Couperin and Handel for Brahms and Schumann. Anna Picard pays court at the Wigmore Hall

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