In Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, the upper-crust guests at a formal dinner party inexplicably find that they are unable to leave the room at evening’s end, even though they are not physically blockaded in any sense. The movie, though unexpectedly compelling and suspenseful, is oddly affect-free; this is partly due to the lack of any musical soundtrack. This made it a perfect target for operatic adaptation, especially in the hands of the wizardly, norm-shattering British composer Thomas Adès (b. 1971), who, along with the director Tom Cairns (also the co-author of the largely faithful libretto), has turned the piece into an insidious, diabolical musical funhouse.
The beginning of the opera (seen October 30 in the highly anticipated Met production) sneaks up on the audience. There’s no conductor entrance, applause, or rising curtain: the action starts as a direct segue from a pre-show sequence featuring tolling bells and the peculiar appearance of a trio of sheep upstage. We witness a minor commotion as several servants flee the house, for stated reasons that seem unconvincing. Shortly thereafter, the guests pour in, having just been to the opera. The music is suitably grand and aristocratic, with overtones of Strauss and Ravel, but it also has insurgent, ominous undercurrents. As Adès said in one interview, the music knows something that the guests do not.
Indeed, although Adès brilliantly uses his music to chart the gradual decay of social norms, as the increasingly panicky guests remain trapped in the music parlor for days (or is it weeks?), there’s plenty of cheeky Adèsian weirdness right out of the gate. Lucía de Nobile, the hostess, has a role with a cruelly high tessitura and treacherously angular intervals, reflecting her panic as the servants flee and the butler trips while carrying a tray of food. However, when Leticia, the opera diva, comes on the scene, Lucia suddenly seems like the contralto role—Leticia rarely descends below a high C, and rises shockingly to the Ab above that.
Adès makes his orchestra—conventional forces supplemented by such oddities as 1/32nd size violins, a slamming door, and a pair of rocks—swoon, seethe, flutter, thunder, and pulse violently. Unlike many contemporary opera composers, Adès provides several set pieces—arias, duets, and ensembles—that appear to anchor the work in a semblance of normality, but whose musical contents overflow with subversion. Lording over the proceedings is the presence of the ondes Martenot, that creepy mainstay of 1950s sci-fi films, and also a favorite of Varèse and Messiaen. Adès deploys the instrument (played by Cynthia Millar, a leading expert) as the unseen force that bafflingly prevents the guests from leaving.
By the third and final act, societal norms have all but disintegrated. Some guests are staggering around like zombies, one is crawling on the floor, and another is keening on the couch. There has been a double suicide, a sexual assault, a hallucinatory vision of a skittering severed hand, and an insinuation that the host must be sacrificed. Yet oddly, some of the guests’ aristocratic characteristics remain entrenched. One character (the vocally and dramatically remarkable countertenor Iestyn Davies) complains that he can’t possibly stir his coffee with a teaspoon. The trapped guests have started a fire and roasted the sheep, but there are complaints that the meat is too tough. Adès’s seditious and inflammatory music is a perfect representative of this jarring duality, which suggests that purportedly civilized humans are only one step away from a brutal, Hobbesian state of nature.
The part of Leticia, the opera diva, was sung by Audrey Luna, whose supernatural coloratura is a wonderful freak of nature. Soprano Amanda Echalaz successfully grappled with the fiendishly difficult writing for Lucia, the hostess—the predominantly unintelligibility of her diction is more the composer’s fault than hers. As her husband Edmundo, tenor Joseph Kaiser emerged heroically, even volunteering to let himself be sacrificed. The always impressive Sir John Tomlinson, as the doctor, deployed his comforting, enveloping bass as the voice of reason. As his troubled patient Leonora, mezzo Alice Coote gave a supremely creepy rendition of a demented aria, which ended with her stabbing the hands of the pianist Blanca (Christine Rice, who at this point had already delivered a wondrously ghostly, ethereal aria of her own). As the doomed engaged couple, gleaming soprano Sophie Bevan and blazing tenor David Portillo performed an exquisite, painstakingly intoned liebestod while standing naked, upstage, inside a slowly sliding cube. Soprano Sally Matthews as Silvia sang a longing, beautifully floated lullaby to her offstage son while cradling a severed sheep’s head.
Adès, who conducted, was a marvel of clarity and intensity in the pit, and seemed to take a fiendish glee in his own maniacal proceedings. The Met Orchestra rose magnificently to the challenge. This thoroughly engrossing production, which I’d happily see again, is an encouraging sign of the vitality of opera as a compelling contemporary medium. Here’s hoping the Met continues to offer works by our most exciting living composers in addition to the warhorses.
The Exterminating Angel presented by the Metropolitan Opera through November 21, 2017. Music by Thomas Adès, libretto by Tom Cairns in collaboration with the composer, based on the screenplay by Luis Buñel and Luis Alcoriza. Conducted by Thomas Adès; production by Tom Cairns; set and costume design by Hildegard Bechtler; lighting design by Jon Clark; projection design by Tal Yarden; choreography by Amir Hosseinpour.
Cast: Audrey Luna, Amanda Echalaz, Sally Matthews, Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote, Christine Rice, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Frédéric Antoun, David Portillo, David Adam Moore, Rod Gilfry, Kevin Burdette, Christian Van Horn, and Sir John Tomlinson.
Cover: Sally Matthews and Iestyn Daviesin”The Exterminating Angel; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
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