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God took off

God took off

The Hungarian premiere of Péter Eötvös's “Angels in America” at the Festival Theatre of the Palace of Arts in Budapest. Review.

Balancing on the thin boundary between dream and reality, and humour and tragedy, Péter Eötvös tells us Tony Kushner’s almost seven-hour play – considered one of the best American dramas of the 20th century – in an almost two-and-a-half hour opera, excellently composed both musically and dramatically.

Two and a half hours is no short time, especially in the case of a contemporary opera. However, the performance did not have any dull moments; we saw a splendid music theatre production.

The opera was premiered at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris in November 2004. It got to Hungary quite late...

The Hungarian premiere now was performed as part of the Cafe Budapest Contemporary Arts Festival, in cooperation with the Neue Oper Wien in a splendid production.


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Scene from Act 1

The story takes place in America in the 1980s. It focuses on a heterosexual Mormon couple (Joe Pitt and his wife, Harper Pitt) and a homosexual couple (Louis Ironson and Prior Walter). At the beginning of the story, we are witnessing the "revelation" of Joe’s secret: his Valium-addicted wife realizes, while hallucinating, that her husband is gay. One night in Central Park, Joe meets Louis who left his lover, Prior, just when (or rather because) he learned Prior had been diagnosed with AIDS.
Roy Cohn's story runs on a separate thread. His doctor tells the bigoted, corrupt, well-connected lawyer that he has AIDS. Before his death, Ethel Rosenberg's ghost appears in front of Cohn. At that time it was Cohn who sent her to the electric chair.
An angel descends to Prior at the hospital. She calls him a prophet who is expected to save the world. Prior, however, chooses life on Earth, no matter how miserable it is.


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Caroline Melzer (the Angel) and
David Adam Moore (Prior)

Through the nightmarish hallucinations alternating with scenes of reality, we see a floating, dream-like story that evokes a feeling of timelessness, where the difference between vision and reality is becoming less and less relevant.

The angels and the ghosts probably exist only in the characters’ imagination. Prior's psyche, for example, tries to protect itself by dreaming, because this is the only way the man can face the impending threat of death. In Cohn’s case, who is at the gate of death, too, repressed remorse may also be responsible for being haunted by his former victim. And Harper, the drug-addicted wife, in her hallucination, is confronted with what she may have already known subconsciously.

But maybe all things are different: at one point, one demon suggests that maybe they are dreaming of us, and not the other way round...


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Karl Huml (Ghost 1), Wolfgang Resch (Ghost 2) and David Adam Moore (Prior)

Given the seriousness of the subject, we see surprisingly funny situations. Péter Eötvös is a master of this, creating a strange mixture of tragedy and comedy, in such a way that none of the elements are broken; they do not spoil each other.

In the last scene, for example, we are in Heaven, where Prior meets the Angels’ Choir. They are an unusual company: the cherubs are sitting in cowboy hats, fur coats, and colourful jackets over the clouds and listening to the news on an old radio about the Earth's destruction. As we learn, after the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906, God took off for good, abandoning Heaven and humanity.

We also learn the bit banal lesson of the story in this episode. Much to the angels' consternation, Prior tells them he wants "more life," and as long as there is hope, it is good to live on Earth. Humour again helps to ease the solemnity and seriousness of this somewhat sentimental message. Before saying goodbye, Prior asks the angels that if God comes back, they should sue Him. (In the Epilogue, five years later, we see that while the epidemic has taken many victims, Prior is still alive.)

The librettist Mari Mezei also cleverly creates comic situations, sometimes using vulgar means to make fun of even the most elevated moments. Whatever pathos there is, for example, in the voice of the Angel descending from above to Prior ("Greetings Prophet!"), the scene ends in a grotesque way: the terrified man is forced to ejaculate, impressed by (and in the presence of) the Angel.

And the scene where the "Antarctic Angel" has intercourse with a polar bear on the stage, is likely to be a turning point in the history of theatre... (To maintain their power, angels must constantly have sex...)


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Caroline Melzer (the Angel) and David Adam Moore (Prior)

Roy Cohn, the pushy lawyer, is an excellent character. As it turns out, he had been with men before, but denying his doctor’s diagnosis, he confidently states that he cannot have AIDS. In his view, AIDS is a disease of homosexuals, that is, of the "weak." He tells the doctor with almost triumphant joviality: he knows he is deathly ill, but he has liver cancer! Because it's such a masculine illness. (No matter how funny the scene is, Cohn’s grotesque figure was "written by history" because Roy Cohn [1927-1986] was a real person. As a chief counsel, the lawyer assisted Senator Joseph McCarthy in investigating communists suspected of espionage. After the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – the latter also appears as a ghost in this opera –, they were both executed. By the way, Roy Cohn also represented Donald Trump during his early business career. And Cohn really claimed until his death that he had liver cancer, though he died of AIDS.)

In Prior's dream, two of his ancestors also appear; they prepare the Angel's visit. The scene of the three Priors is bizarre, entertaining and witty.

In addition to the absurd events taking place in a dream world, some episodes are really worldly. Such is the debate between the gay Joe Pitt and his wife Harper (in which the wife demands that her husband confess). It is no coincidence that this is one of the most dramatic and serious moments of the opera. Death is too absurd and incomprehensible, maybe this is why humour and irony sometimes suit it better.

The slightly parodic opening scene that functions as a kind of prologue, taking place at a Bronx Jewish funeral – Louis’s grandmother's funeral – is also interesting. The scene has no particular significance for the story, but it adds a colour to the performance. After the rabbi’s speech held at the ceremony in the snow, Prior confesses to his partner, Louis, that he has AIDS.


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Sophie Rennert (Angel Antarctica)

Although the musical language and tone of the work do not change fundamentally, in the second half of the piece, the plot becomes more difficult to follow. It is understandable because by now dream, imagination, and transcendence have become more dominant. The former characters gradually disappear, but the authors tried to tie up loose ends. Roy, the lawyer dies at the hospital, Joe and Louis are together, and Harper, the wife is persuaded by Hannah, Joe's mother, to join her as a Mormon volunteer. And the appearances of Prior's angel hold and knit together the somewhat disintegrating elements of the narrative. In the end, the focus of the story is only on Prior and the angels.


The stage scenery created by director Matthias Oldag is attractive. The presentation of the fantastic and psychedelic environment offers many possibilities for a director. It was impressive, however, that while Oldag made use of these – through a variety of light effects, background images and imaginative costumes in the first place –, it did not become intrusive and autotelic, and he did not want to draw attention with cheap attractions. The scenery, both happening in the real world and in the realm of fantasy, was understandable and aesthetic. The stage director needed relatively few tools, and used them economically but not cheaply, giving precedence to acting.


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Wolfgang Resch (Joe) and Karl Huml (Roy Cohn)

According to the brief introduction of the Palace of Arts to the opera, "The musical language [Eötvös] developed for this work is capable of integrating the totality of our acoustic environment." I myself can „neither confirm nor deny” this but the music is certainly varied, inventive, and witty, and its power to create an atmosphere is impressive. The eclectic music, combining different style elements, often using disharmonies, but being essentially atonal, illustrates the atmosphere of the scenes and the inner world of the characters illustratively.

It is important that the piece was performed at the Müpa Festival Theatre: in „chamber opera circumstances”, the fine details of the colourful, airy, restrained – never uproarious –, and at first hearing, perhaps less showy score played by about 30 musicians of the Hungarian Radio Symphonic Orchestra could predominate. (This time, I will skip the phrase "the conductor had a thorough knowledge of the score": the conductor was Péter Eötvös himself.) The orchestral sound was made even more interesting by a number of instruments rarely heard in operas, including several rattling and brattling percussions, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, a Hammond organ and saxophones, but we also heard recorded sound effects.


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Caroline Melzer (the Angel) and David Adam Moore (Prior)

It is also unusual – and does not make it easy for visitors who got used to traditional operas – that the parts of the singers were as much characterised by declamatory singing and speech (helped by amplification) as by singing. The Angel's part is the most "operatic" of all, but even in her case we should not think of arias in the traditional sense.

Besides the soloists, a three-membered choir, or rather a vocal trio (a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone) also had an important role. They did not only sing, but also made different sound effects, echoing the soloists, the events and the atmosphere – often in a jazz-like style –, illustrating and sometimes commenting briefly on the action. The trio was composed of three highly musical singers: Momoko Nakajima, Johanna Zachhuber, and Jorge Alberto Martinez.

I can only say the best of the singer soloists, both regarding their singing and prose performance.

Baritone David Adam Moore portrayed Prior Walter's long and difficult role with intense and mature acting, singing expressively. He was also suggestive and memorable when he appeared in Harper’s dream, as a projection of the woman’s subconscious. He was sitting in front of a mirror, wearing a make-up, to make her realize that her husband was a homosexual.

Caroline Melzer, who sang the role of the Angel, sang brightly and dynamically even in the highest register (both when standing on the stage and when floating high above).

Soprano Sophie Rennert showed fine dramatic abilities in Harper's, the wife’s role. She was cynical and entertaining as Ethel Rosenberg, too, singing the Kaddish majestically to the dying Roy. (And as the Antarctic Angel, she was the "partner" of the already mentioned polar bear...)

In the role of Roy Cohn, Karl Huml stepped on the stage. His powerful bass suited the character of the aggressive top lawyer, and his acting did not lack humour and irony, either.

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Scene from Act 2

Tim Severloh
(a white male) was convincing in the role of Belize, the black nurse. He sang accurately, though it seemed to me that, as a countertenor, switching between speech and singing may even be more difficult.

It was probably Inna Savchenko who had to change costume and role most often. In her expressive mezzo-soprano voice, she could give significance to all her roles: Hannah, Henry (the doctor), and the old rabbi.

Tenor Franz Gürtelschmied made a credible performance in the role of Louis, who escaped cowardly from his deathly ill lover, as did baritone Wolfgang Resch, the husband who suppressed his homosexuality (probably also because of his religious beliefs).

The soloists made up the already mentioned Angels’ Choir. Musically, the Angels’ septet was the climax of the work.


Angels in America is, of course, not the opera the melodies of which "we whistle on the way home". But it is a thoughtful, shocking, yet entertaining and exciting contemporary music theatre by one of the greatest composers of our time.

Balázs Csák

photo: Bálint Hrotkó




12 October 2019, Palace of Arts – Festival Theatre, Budapest

Péter Eötvös:

Angels in America

Opera in two acts based on the play by Tony Kushner

Libretto: Mari Mezei

Set and costumes: Nikolaus Webern

Lighting: Norbert Chmel

Sound: Christina Bauer

Artistic director: Walter Kobéra

Stage director: Matthias Oldag

Conductor: Péter Eötvös


The Angel / Voice - Caroline Melzer

Harper Pitt / Ethel / Angel Antarctica - Sophie Rennert

Hannah Pitt / Rabbi Chemelwitz / Henry / Angel Asiatica - Inna Savchenko

Louis Ironson / Angel Oceania - Franz Gürtelschmied

Roy Cohn / Ghost 1 / Angel Australia - Karl Huml

Prior Walter - David Adam Moore

Joe Pitt / Ghost 2 / Angel Europe - Wolfgang Resch

Belize / Mr Lies / Woman / Angel Africanii - Tim Severloh

Vocal ensemble: Momoko Nakajima, Johanna Zachhuber, Jorge Alberto Martinez

Featuring the Hungarian Radio Symphonic Orchestra