With music by Du Yun and libretto by Royce Vavrek, Angel’s Bone, at the 2016 Prototype Festival, is a wailing 80-minute opera where feathers fly and violins screech to high heaven.
We see the world of Angel’s Bone through the eyes of Mrs. X.E., skillfully sung by Abigail Fischer. Ms. Fischer, a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, shows an extraordinary range, singing with Mr. X.E. (Kyle Pfortmiller). Ms. Fischer is no stranger to Prototype, which seeks to bring the best avant-garde music-theater performances to the stage, having performed previously in The Scarlet Ibis. This opera, with an intricate composition by Du Yun, is jam-packed with drama and despair.
Mrs. X.E., an average housewife, chops vegetables downstage. Meanwhile, upstage, there has been a murder with a butcher knife. Angels are set into action before all is revealed on TV. A world premiere originally commissioned by the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Angel’s Bone is not so much a thrilling journey, as a blast of sound, with harrowing images shapeshifting as time ticks on. The strength of the opera lies in its originality; the composition combines live music with pre-recorded computer tracks, and has just enough melody and discord, with gutsy base and pounding drums. Julian Wachner, who provides the musical direction, keeps it all together, with sequences that are as loud and potent as it gets. The dynamic conductor leads a chorus and horns, violins, lute, and percussion through the opera. A memorable performance is also delivered by Elysian Fields' lead singer, Jennifer Charles, as Girl Angel.
Never faltering are the performances from the four lead actors, who are deeply supported by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and NOVUS NY. Dressed in long black robes, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sounds medieval, setting a tone for a complete spectacle that launches after a bludgeoning with a butcher knife. Projections designer Hannah Wasileski serves up some fierce imagery, with exploding black and white images in front of the tattered angels, dressed in rags and covered with blood. The images, constantly in motion, are impressive throughout the performance. They add to an entire stage picture that is pleasing like a rock concert - not articulate like some theater work. Director Michael McQuilken seems more interested in the sound and the experience, and less interested in creating a living painting onstage. The music often seems to overtake the story. In case the audience has missed any of it, McQuilken serves up a mash up at the end of the show, blinking bits of the libretto on the walls in fast motion, summarizing and heightening the horror of what we have seen.
As Mrs. X.E., Abigail Fischer’s performance is resonant, as she, with video cameras on her, explains how she has lived through so much. She is a strong woman. Her journey – on tape for the broad, mass media marketplace – is exceptionally watchable.
Performances of Angel's Bone continue through January 17, as part of the Prototype Festival (January 6-17).