Fallen Angel

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, April 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

Fallen Angel


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


Angels in America

Barbican

Angels in America is the latest in the series of contemporary operas which are being mounted at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The others have been semi-staged, this was threequarter staged, with props, moved around by the performers, and an Angel crashing into the action at the close of Act I. It is the latest opera by the Transylvanian composer Peter Eotvos, whose previous opera Love and Other Demons was premiered at the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival, to no great acclaim. Angels in America, by contrast, has been given very warm welcomes in the various cities in which it has been produced, beginning with Paris in 2004. If anything, I preferred Love and Other Demons, but I can't see merit in either of them, and, worse, Angels strikes me as positively bad.

It is adapted from the play by Tony Kushner, recipient of every known award, almost seven hours long, and described generously by Christopher Cook in his helpful programme notes for the Barbican as 'gloriously baggy'. I must find out more about that 'gloriously'. It had seemed to me a shapeless sprawl, by no means justified or excused by being subtitled 'A Gay Fantasia on National Themes'. Written when the Aids epidemic in the United States was at its peak, it was guaranteed respectful attention, especially since it combined an epic scale with plenty of camp humour and a mistily articulated message of Hope from Beyond. It has been a recurrent American vice, thinking that the disciplines of art somehow demean great and terrible issues. That hardly needs disproving but, if the claim is that 'the blindness of Republican America to what was happening under its nose' is answered by a messy representation, then that was refuted, contemporaneously with Angels, by David Feinberg's magnificent and underrated novels Eighty-Sixed and Spontaneous Combustion, which tackle the same issues with insouciance, devastating wit, agonised insight and unostentatious decency.

Eotvos has shopped around in the course of a career which has involved much contact with the one-time avant-garde of Stockhausen and Boulez, the directorship of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and many prestigious conducting positions. It's no use asking the question how someone who regularly conducts great music manages to produce and tolerate his own inferior products, because so many great conductors have done that. …

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