REVIEW: of Thomas Adès’s new opera The Exterminating Angel, viewed in live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, November 18, 2017.
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.
Based on the 1962 film El ángel exterminador by cinematic provocateur Luis Bunuel, 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 Serling, with a smidgen of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio thrown in. The work is big, brash, enigmatic, thrillingly theatrical and thoroughly terrifying. It’s also, believe it or not, quite funny.
All Together Now
Ever since Aristotle articulated the ideal of “unity of action,” dramatists have sought plausible pretexts for enforced dramatic confinement. Sartre’s existentialist hocus-pocus in No Exit comes to mind, as does the psycho-juridical ingenuity of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There are the examples of countless prison, asylum, or shipwreck sagas. But Bunuel’s audacious solution beggars all comparison. A gaggle of highbrows undergoes seemingly spontaneous house-arrest – no explanation given or required – as our attention is effectively diverted from logic or causality toward absorption in the raw spectacle of a descent from sophistication to savagery.
An incongruously pastoral pre-show greets the audience; dulcet church bells toll while three live sheep meander onstage. It’s the first of many slyly disarming deceptions.
Suspense ramps up quickly with the commencement of the action proper. Breathless and drubbing orchestral figures attend the chaos of scurrying domestic servants. The valets, maids, and kitchen staff of the affluent de Nobile household all seem to be fleeing inexplicably, like warblers ahead of a storm, with only the steadfast butler, Julio, keeping to his post – a decision he will come to regret.
In due course, Señor and Señora de Nobiles arrive home from a night at the opera with twelve guests in tow, including the star soprano, Leticia, who has played a brilliant Lucia de Lammermoor earlier that evening. Wisecracks and innuendo crackle among the guests, with swipes at each other’s sobriety, patriotism, chastity, even sanity. As dinner commences, snippets of dialogue get weirdly repeated, and the meal’s first course is sent clattering to the floor by a clumsy footman. Was it a staged stunt on the part of the mischievous hostess, Lucia de Nobile? Perhaps. She furtively nixes some other surprises she had in store, involving both those wandering sheep and – wait for it – a chained bear she has secreted in the kitchen. She has Julio evict the creatures to the backyard. No matter, the whole menagerie will recur later, with the inevitability of all things repressed.
The warp and woof of reality continue to undergo stresses darkly predictive of the horror yet to come – a horror of which the guests themselves are as yet blithely oblivious – as the group enters the drawing room.
Blanca, an acclaimed pianist, entertains with a piece by “Paradisi.” The star soprano declines to sing. Young innamorati flirt; guests quarrel; the hostess Lucía compacts a secret assignation with her lover, Colonel Gómez (a meeting fated never to occur). The group grows weary. Tailcoats are removed. Makeshift pallets are laid down. People speak of leaving. But no one does. No one will. No one can. Even the young engaged couple, Beatriz and Eduardo, lustfully covetous of privacy, find a corner of the drawing room rather than quit the scene. Sleep descends. That’s Act I.
Go Big, and Don’t Go Home
The libretto – co-written by Adès and the opera’s director, Tom Cairns – cleaves closely to Bunuel’s screenplay, while the composer has scored the behavioral oddities of the film’s denizens in an understandably more highly ratcheted, “operatic” pitch than the more close-to-the-vest original. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but the opera thus arguably limns even more powerfully than the original a dramatic trajectory and stylistic evolution from initial comedy of manners to eventual Götterdämmerung.
Adès’s nervy, tumultuous score (which includes deployment of the eerie, early Theremin-like electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot, played by virtuoso Cynthia Miller), packs a mighty wallop of metaphysical vertigo and visceral horror.
The fifteen principals – one of the largest ensembles of operatic “principal” players ever mustered – splendidly execute Adès’s sometimes fiendishly jagged and altitudinous vocal lines. They also expertly chew the scenery (and, eventually, those ill-fated sheep), while even threatening to chew each other. (Bunuel, in interviews, admitted to having glanced at the expedient of Donner-party-style cannibalism, but demurred, blaming Mexican censorship, even as he speculated that, had he made the film in France, he could have gotten away with it.)
Musical witticism – and even mischief – abounds in Adès’s score. (A quote from Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze” should make the most jaded chuckle.) The drawing room piano concerto played by Blanca, attributed to Paradisi, is actually a peppery and sensual standalone piece by Adès himself, entitled, suitably, the “Blanca Variations”; yet, when the character of the hotheaded young aristocrat Raúl Yebenes (tenor Frédéric Antoun) entreats “How about a piece by Adès?”, the apathetic pianist declines.
The film’s gallimaufry of references to Catholicism, Freemasonry, and witchcraft as background cultural intrigues are soft-pedaled in the opera, substituted instead by Adès’s ingenious, layered salting of the score with more exoteric cultural intimations. British-born and of Syrian-Jewish descent, Adès makes pervasive recourse to the Ladino folk music of Sephardic Jewry, but also revels in gestures of Viennese waltz. (Aptly, “a Viennese waltz says to me, ‘Don’t go home, stay a little longer,'” Adès has said in interviews.) Exquisite supernatural dread is conjured by expressionistic flamenco guitar riffs that accompany a dream sequence of a wandering, severed hand.
Shrieks and Giggles
As the group’s desperate evening reels out into increasingly desperate days, the opera opens its perspective on the outer world. A chorus of concerned citizenry creates a carnival of ghoulish curiosity outside the de Nobile mansion, one which authorities strive awkwardly to contain. Meanwhile, inside the house, thirst, hunger, illness, and panic take an ever more costly toll. Factions form. The host, Señor de Nobile (a self-avowed “pacifist”), is very nearly pressed into propitiatory duty by the more sanguinary inmates who move to make a human sacrifice of him, while the rationalist Doctor Conde solemnly chalks the situation up to “abulia,” a slippery neurological term by which neither onstage characters nor opera audience ought be taken in. All – cast and audience alike – are caught in a shadow land somewhere between metaphor and nightmare. Theorize away, try to chase down the “meaning of it all,” but where will it get you?
Yet, through it all, The Exterminating Angel manifests devious and idiopathic eruptions of humor, arising principally out of the sheer eccentricity of the characters themselves. (“Life is funny; and strange,” the amorous Eduardo consoles his fianceé Beatriz.)
Interestingly, cast members who have been with the opera consistently from its 2016 Salzburg premiere have attested that notably bigger and more frequent laughs were enjoyed in the New York Metropolitan Opera presentation than in any other venue to date.
One could quibble that Adès’s score flirts at times with going over the top. It certainly rises to symphonic enormity, and to densities and volumes beyond ordinary thresholds of auditory comfort. Moreover, a noisome camp of English-language opera enthusiasts might contend that any opera sung in English but requiring English-language titles to be intelligible must have faults in the vocal writing, the orchestral dynamics, or both.
The opera is also dauntingly complex, with seemingly ever-shifting rhythmic patterns in rare and recondite meters such as 7/16 and 5/12. It is thus an open question how often it could possibly be mounted in the future without the composer himself wielding the baton (and watching Adès’s burly exertions in the HD broadcast is a show unto itself). Are there sufficient conductors (and singers) with requisite virtuosity also willing to undertake the colossal effort of mastering the technical challenges of this material? In other words, the opera’s inherent brilliance notwithstanding, is The Exterminating Angel self-destined to be novelty, anomaly, or abiding staple?
The Extermination Will Be Broadcast…
The uniformly excellent cast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Exterminating Angel boasts soprano Audrey Luna as Leticia Maynar (whose climactic aria features several astonishing As above high C, thus distinguishing the singer as having achieved the highest notes ever heard from the Metropolitan Opera stage); soprano Amanda Echalaz as Lucía de Nobile; soprano Sally Matthews as Silvia de Ávila; soprano Sophie Bevan as Beatriz; soprano Alice Coote as Leonora Palma; mezzo-soprano Christine Rice as Blanca Delgado; countertenor Iestyn Davies as Francisco de Ávila; tenor Joseph Kaiser as Edmundo de Nobile; tenor Frédéric Antoun as Raúl Yebenes; tenor David Portillo as Eduardo; baritone David Adam Moore as Col. Álvaro Gómez; baritone Rod Gilfry as Alberto Roc; bass Kevin Burdette as Señor Russell; bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Julio; and veteran bass Sir John Tomlinson as Dr. Carlos Conde.
Director Tom Cairns exhibits great resourcefulness and ingenuity in marshaling to coherence an ensemble of so many cynosure-like performers. Set and costume designs by Hildegard Bechtler; lighting design by Jon Clark; moody and impactful projection designs by Tal Yarden; and choreography by Amir Hosseinpour all prove invaluable.
The “Live in HD” presentation of The Exterminating Angel (November 18, 2017), which continues to play theaters in encore, is hosted with brio by soprano Susan Graham and offers some sumptuously privileged views behind the scenes and into the orchestra pit, along with revealing interviews with some of the principals, as well as ondes Martenot player Cynthia Miller and composer Thomas Adès himself.
- The “Live in HD” presentation of The Exterminating Angel will be rebroadcast in select theatres on January 7 and 13, 2018. See: www.cineplex.com.
- The Exterminating Angel will also be shown in the Los Angeles area at the Norris Theater, on January 20, 2018, sponsored by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Additional information is available here.