Guess who’s coming dinner — and never leaving? In the case of composer Thomas Adès’s new opera, The Exterminating Angel, the answer is: everyone. The show opened last year in Salzburg and is currently enjoying its American premiere at the Met.
Based on the 1962 film El ángel exterminador by cinematic provocateur Luis Buñuel, Adès’s opera ruthlessly tracks the exigent plight (and deteriorating sanities) of a group of bourgeois Spanish socialites gathered for a posh post-opera soirée only to find that, for reasons beyond anyone’s ken, they can’t bring themselves to go home. Think Noel Coward meets Rod Sterling, with a smidgen of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio thrown in.
Ever since Aristotle articulated the ideal of unity of action, dramatists have sought situations where such enforced dramatic confinement is plausible — Sartre’s existentialist hocus-pocus in No Exit; the psycho-juridical ingenuity of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None; countless prison or asylum dramas. But Buñuel’s audacious solution beggars comparison: a gaggle of highbrows undergo seemingly spontaneous house arrest and descend from sophistication to savagery.
The libretto by Adès and director Tom Cairns cleaves closely to Buñuel and perhaps better negotiates the evolution from initial comedy of manners to eventual Götterdämmerung, while Adès’s brash and tumultuous score (not to mention its virtuoso deployment of the eerie electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot), packs a mighty wallop of metaphysical vertigo and visceral horror.
The principal players admirably chew scenery — and sometimes transcend belief — in their execution of fiendishly jagged and often unprecedentedly altitudinous vocal lines, with sopranos Audrey Luna and Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, countertenor Iestyn Davies, and Quebec tenor Frédéric Antoun as standouts among a stellar cast.