Music in ‘Angel Heart’ opera soars over storyline

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It’s Sunday night, and Hertz Hall’s theater is dark but packed full of people. No one dares to move or speak as a chilling trill cuts through the silent air. More strings chime in, and the stage is illuminated to reveal a small orchestra of cellos. Their sound is crisp, loud and unified, the classical harmonies stirringly beautiful. A mandolin joins the chorus, its lighter, sweeter notes adding another layer to the stringed symphony.

The music is what makes and consumes “Angel Heart,” the musical storybook in which these ornate harmonies play an integral part. Cal Performances organized the show’s opening night on Oct 6, and hundreds of parents and young children clad in semiformal attire were in attendance.

The show is marketed as a live storybook, but this title is somewhat misleading. Although the live narration, performed by acclaimed “A Clockwork Orange” star Malcolm McDowell, progressed at an adequate pace, the simultaneous bellowing of the cellos occasionally overpowered the story’s voice. The musical accompaniment made the experience more intense but also made it difficult to hear the narration.

“Angel Heart” follows a depressed young woman, Luna, who finds solace in nature with the help of the Angel of Love and Compassion. The angel explains that he must turn back time to make Luna a child again, as he says, “We know best who we are when we are very young.” The play portrays childhood innocence as an important component of one’s identity and speaks to the overarching theme of the healing power of solitude and nature. Luna’s sadness functions as the crux of the story, but the cause of her woes is never explained, leaving the audience confused as the protagonist’s melancholy grows deeper for an unknown reason.

The girl travels in all directions to all cardinal points on the compass rose. Each direction — North, West, South and East — offers her a degree of healing as she slowly begins to recover from her once seemingly inescapable sorrow. Costumed opera singers personify the four cardinal points, each vocalist crooning about what makes his area of the world unique. Although the concept of moving on through traveling is portrayed in an innovative way, one could also read the story as encouraging youth to run away from their problems.

Regardless of its themes and their interpretations, “Angel Heart” brings something new and fresh to the table — an opera accessible to children. The song lyrics are relatable, as both parents and children can appreciate the messages behind scores such as “Mother Nature’s Son.” The incorporation of other languages such as French cultivates a more global appeal. While there were only four opera singers onstage, a cluster of Oakland schoolchildren formed a chanting chorus. One young girl stood apart from the crowd, miming the role of Luna and her heartache center stage. The juxtaposition between the children onstage in their white T-shirts and jeans and the opera singers in their feather cloaks and jewel-toned embroidery melded the ethereal with reality and made the fictional symbolic, establishing a parallelism between the conflicts of the story and those of the real world.

Overall, the production has a certain folktale charm about it that deeply resonated with the audience. At the end of the story, Luna heals from her sorrow and the crowd gave a standing ovation. While many enjoyed the experience, one young boy explained to his mother after the show that he was hoping for “more of a story(line).” It seems that although “Angel Heart” wins the adult audience with its classical operatic scores, the plotline takes a bit of a hit as the musical notes envelop the characters. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a fairy-tale opera with relevant contemporary connotations, “Angel Heart” will leave you humming to its saccharine melodies of tragedy and love. 

Contact Kate Irwin at [email protected].