Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” is one of the iconic surrealist masterpieces of all cinema. Set at an upper-class dinner, the film analyzes how people revert to their basest of instincts when they get stuck in a room that they inexplicably cannot escape.
The film succeeds in its ability to blend the normal with the unreal in rather claustrophobic fashion, its high emotions and wide-ranging characters seemingly making it the ideal subject for an artform as visceral as opera.
American audiences have finally gotten the opportunity to witness such an adaptation in the form of Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel,” with a libretto by the composer himself and Tom Cairns, who also directed the production at the Metropolitan Opera. Adès also conducted the evening, ensuring that the intentions of the creators were at highest fidelity.
Pleasing Intellectually, Though Not Emotionally
I must be forward in my opinion on the composer’s music – I am not an enthusiast, finding his dissonant style rather distancing and unnerving. Listening to an Adès opera does not give me any pleasure in the least.
And it probably isn’t intended to be, the composer’s style rather erratic at times, moving from traditional structures of arias and duets to cacophonous musical ensembles more interested in serving the drama at hand than the audience’s aural pleasures. And in this vein, Adès probably succeeds. His upper-class party guests, all 14 of them, kick off the evening singing chaotic phrases that often make it difficult to differentiate one from the other. Sometimes, the vocal writing, stuck up in the higher registers of each individual’s tessitura, makes the text incomprehensible, the singing animal-like. If Adès intends to imply the raw, brutal, inhuman qualities of his character from the get-go, he certainly succeeds with flying colors. Leticia Maynar’s vocal lines, as sung by the technically dazzling Audrey Luna, may be strident and weigh on the listener in their preoccupation with always being in the soprano stratosphere, but they certainly underscore the bestiality of the characters and their increasingly incomprehensible behavior.
Adès does have moments of more traditional operatic structure, including a love duet between Eduardo and Beatriz, both portrayed with suave vocal nuance by David Portillo and Sophie Bevan, an aria by Leticia, or even a lullaby late in the work (the most melodic moment that the opera offers), which reminds us that these monsters are, after all, flawed and confused human beings. These pieces, which are arguably the most engaging for a traditional opera goer, mainly come in the final act.
I also can’t deny that there is some ingenious orchestral coloring throughout, at one moment a solo guitar highlights a surrealist fantasy, while another moment of melancholy is emphasized by solo piano.
On an intellectual level, this works and digesting the musical information long after the performance is certainly an interesting exercise, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes for exhilarating opera experience, especially not for the uninitiated into the art form.
Bizarre To Mundane
The task of ensuring the increased investment from the audience then falls to the director himself. And Cairns succeeds at the outset. Entering the auditorium, it was quite marvelous to see goats strutting across the stage. Bizarre is one of many words one might come up with when considering that we were in an opera house. A bell sounded somewhere in the auditorium, the sound intermittent initially, but then slowly growing and transforming, the lights in the opera house coming down. As the bell grew in prominent, the orchestra tuned, but the power of the sound actually washed away the ensemble. Suddenly, as the crescendo of the bell grew and grew, the chandeliers started to rise. One could sense that something was about to happen, when suddenly, the opera started out of nowhere. If the idea was to immerse the audience immediately, the mission was undeniably accomplished. The initial moments of the work also dazzled, the chandeliers in the Met auditorium coming up and down in strange fashion. Personally, I felt ill at ease in a good way, anticipating that I was in for an awkward night full of surprises.
The biggest surprise was that that was as far as Cairns was willing to go with audience immersion. The remainder of the effects stayed on stage, with some surreal images really propping up the visual splendor of the third act. But unfortunately, the decision to connect the first and second act before the intermission, brought out some of the pacing issues of the opera, the music the main culprit in this case.
Cairns’ stage is rather bare throughout, a massive doorway meant to emphasize the gateway to the main characters’ freedom. It rotates about, always leaving the characters locked away inside. The ending of the opera is perhaps most impressive in its use of this particular symbol, the doorway / frame coming to the front of the stage and enclosing every single person that has arrived, including the main characters. While the “heroes” may have escaped their initial prison, it seems that they are set to enter an even bigger and, perhaps, more violent one.
Part of the Whole
Singing throughout the night was stellar, though the interpretations were more impressive for each individual artists’ ability to navigate the difficult musical language constructed by Adès. The sopranos, Amanda Echalaz, Audrey Luna, Sophie Bevan, and Sally Matthews all put in distinguished turns throughout the evening with assured ascents into the upper range of their respective voices. Of the men, Joseph Kaiser’s Nobile was elegant and poised while countertenor Iestyn Davies put on the most engaging characterization of any single performer, his Francisco de Avila was potent figure early on but grew increasingly erratic and menacing as the night unraveled. Other commendable turns came from Alice Coote, Christine Rice (who was quite neurotic herself as Blanca Delgado), Rod Gilfry, Frédéric Antoun, David Adam Moore, Kevin Burdette, Sir John Tomlison, Christian Van Horn, and David Portillo. Adès and Cairns obviously employ different methods to distinguish them from one another, but in the general chaos of the situation, it seemed most appropriate to view them as part of a collective symbol, than to analyze anyone particular characterization.
Adès kept everything under locks in the pit, the orchestral colors coming through rather clearly throughout the night, his different musical flavors all rather clear and concise.
Overall, “The Exterminating Angel” is worth a look for the seasoned operagoer, if only to experiment with a different approach to the artform. Adès is undeniably an acquired taste, but that by no means that the drama and the musical conception for exploring are not without interest. The singers all deliver splendidly on their end, even if the fireworks of hearing high notes for two straight hours don’t quite stir the senses the way they would in another work.
***A previous version of this article spelt Ms. Luna’s name incorrectly as Looney. Our apologies to Ms. Luna for the mistake and any harm it may have caused.