Angel's Bone: I finally saw it and I'm never going to be the sameReview
Though I have a complicated relationship with all this freely streamed opera happening from houses worldwide, I can admit that I voraciously consumed LA Opera’s most recent LAO at Home presentation, Angel’s Bone. The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek is a Beth Morrison Projects production, and it was supposed to tour to Los Angeles as part of LAO’s Off Grand series, but in lieu of Angel’s Bone live, they’ve offered up a performance from 2018 at the Hong Kong New Vision Arts Festival.
It’s a good consolation prize. The Hong Kong performance features the cast and creative team that was set for Los Angeles; for the most part, it’s this BMP-led team that has seen Angel’s Bone through since in 2016 premiere at New York’s PROTOTYPE Festival.
This opera is hard on the heart. Two angels, nostalgic for earthly life, make the long journey back to the mortal world. When Mr. and Mrs. X.E. discover the angels in their garden, they are in the thick of the stress and mutual resentment that comes out of financial worries and an untended marriage. The couple “prune” the angels - hacking off their wings in a terrorizing scene of violence - and commodify them, selling them as sexual and spiritual slaves for men and women who are into that sort of “angelic” experience.
Angel’s Bone, frankly, fucked me up. The opera is so rich with dramatic beats that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when you become swept away by the story, but it’s within the first minutes. There are delicious layers in the X.E.’s, particularly the arc of Mrs. X.E. (Abigail Fischer) and her bored-housewife introduction that reads like a bleak, bizarro-world version of Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti. She goes from banal victim to vicious trafficker seemingly on a dime, with a pointed dose of abusive behaviour that erases all hope of her character getting any sympathy from me.
It’s all a bit unnatural, just unfamiliar enough to give me the heebie-jeebies.
And Mr. X.E. (Kyle Pfortmiller), who takes a dramatic path that’s sort of opposite to his wife’s, has that baffling effect of a violent guy who’s sometimes nice. It’s a bit like Scarpia in Tosca, with all his beautiful singing; Pfortmiller is a true master of his instrument, and his character’s finale left me wholly confused about things like desperate behaviour and remorse.
But it was the Girl and Boy Angels that got me the most. I’m not even sure where to start, since it was in the Angels’ scenes that this opera felt its most cohesive, as though no element could be pried away from another. The two characters are brilliantly created, childlike and slightly off - a fascinating take on the concept of otherworldly beings. The way they speak, move, the sounds of their voices, it’s all a bit unnatural, just unfamiliar enough to give me the heebie-jeebies.
It doesn’t really matter why I got all messed up watching this, by the glow of my computer monitor and clutching at a glass of wine.
And these singers, holy shit. Kyle Bielfield as the Boy Angel uses his voice in a truly unreal way, with actually awesome power and extreme ranges and colour spectra for days; and paired with his physicality, which starts off as naïve and loving before diving into traumatized and abused, it’s completely heart-wrenching. And Rosie K as the Girl Angel, her voice drew me right in. She’s not an opera singer - or at least she doesn’t sing like one - and the breathy brittleness in her first words added to that whole thing of, what are angels actually like? Are they these weird innocent aliens? She certainly expands beyond sounding fragile, in a solo display that sets a new bar for operatic mad scenes.
I can’t tell if it was this glorious casting that made these characters so horrifying and compelling, or if it was the way they were written by Du Yun and Royce Vavrek. It’s probably true that Angel’s Bone hits that white-whale mark, where collaborative creation leads to something greater than the sum of its parts. Honestly, in that scene where Mr. X.E. takes a cleaver to the angels’ wings, I think I had an “aha” moment. I thought I’d experienced that thing where the story is excellent and the music makes it even more excellent, but this moment was something else entirely. Chaotic blasts of sound by Du Yun punctuate the angels’ hair-raising screams of pain and fear and disbelief - that’s some fucking opera right there. Christ.
I feel like I’m stuck on details - that one scene, the incredible cast, the craft that went into making this opera - and I’m not even telling you much about it. But it doesn’t really matter why I got all messed up watching this, by the glow of my computer monitor and clutching at a glass of wine. I’m so freaking thrilled that works like this are happening now, and that opera’s dramatic possibilities just keep growing.
It’s no longer free to watch with LA Opera, but it’s available on Beth Morrison Projects’ website, and for listening on Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, & probably more. Do it, you honestly won’t hear anything like this.