Opéra National de Paris Review 2024: The Exterminating Angel

By João Marcos Copertino
Photo credit: Agathe Poupeney-OnP

Thomas Adès’s “The Exterminating Angel” is one of the most successful contemporary operas of the century. Beyond its many productions—the Parisian one being the best of them all—, the opera quickly entered the symphonic repertoire with a very well-crafted symphonic suite. The opera, based on Luís Buñuel’s homonymous film, follows its source material: more than a social commentary on the elites of the last century, it reflects on the brutality of music and the operagoing experience itself—especially in the superb modern halls where we attend opera. Certainly, it is a contemporary masterpiece.

Adès’s opera is also a success because it goes against the grain of trends in contemporary opera. While the most successful contemporary works tend to embrace the intimacy of chamber music or minimalism trends, “Exterminating” is giant. For an opera that has such a claustrophobic plot, it is impressive how its music occupies the monumentally big opera houses that were built long after the operatic repertoire was already sedimented.

“The Exterminating Angel” delivers a promise for opera that was denied with the failure of Samuel Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra’s” Met premiere. When Barber’s work inaugurated Lincoln Center, the underwhelming reviews and the scarcity of following performances seemed to have sealed that hall’s fate to witness only works from the past. The new opera houses would be shaped for a repertoire, but no repertoire could be shaped by them, as if the building itself could never  “give [us] some music; music, moody food/Of us that trade in love” as the queen of Egypt would say,  according to the Bard.

Adès’s opera returns a sense of meaning to these massive modern opera houses that were built in the last six decades. Finally the walls of Opéra Bastille seem to reverberate with a music that was composed specifically for its attributes. It is interesting to trace the success of “Exterminating’s” path among newer opera theaters. From the 1960s, Met and Salzburg Haus für Mozart to Royal Danish Opera and now to Opéra Bastille—Convent Garden, an old theater, but extremely modernized.

In a certain way, Bieito’s production of the opera feels like a homecoming. It just feels right that such music is being performed in such a space. One of the main differences between the excellent libretto by Tom Carins and Buñuel’s film is precisely the relationship between operagoers and music. While in the film, the snob elites come from an opera performance, and can leave the house only through the process of repetition—they repeat their bourgeois gestures that confined them at first time; in the Opera. Music seems to be what eventually frees them and it is after Leticia’s perplexing aria that they are finally freed to leave the house. The aria is incomprehensible less because of its enigmatic lyrics than because of the soprano’s tremble. It is so high that the text is meant to not be understood, but only to make the music felt. Adès and Cairns’s inversion also elevates the music, making the characters significantly more pedantic. The colonel has to ask about a “‘pizzicato’ we have just heard?” proving himself a fustian ignorant. It all elevates the implied power of the music that is, to such philistine elites, ungraspable.

In his usual fashion, Bieito empties the opera of its filmic aspects and makes it a symbolic experience of theater. The bear and the sheep are transformed into childish images (a puppet and balloons). There is an embracing of both the scatological and the playfulness of the opera that makes it more a theater experience than a film. Some moments were particularly insightful, especially the implication of cannibalism in the sheep-eating scene where the guests dress in lamb skins and comment on their own flesh. The scene is not as brutal as one might imagine; there is no blood—in this scene, at least.

The beautiful scenarios by Anna-Sofia Kirsch work perfectly to make the stage both a grandiose room and a claustrophobic space: its white walls expand the stage, while inviting us to embrace the craziness of the plot. The white also enables much of colorful lighting that takes the set during the interludes. In fact, a beautiful production that profits from all of the qualities of Opéra Bastille.

Although not offering a deconfiguration of the opera, this production showcases musical alterations from previous productions. The most noticeable is the opera’s being performed without any breaks. In a minor level, I am under the impression that the orchestration is significantly better crafted. Most arias are intimate, with chamber sonority, while the interludes and many of the confrontation scenes show all the powers of the orchestra. It also appeared to me this production relied much more on the ondes de martinot (here played by Nathalie Forget).

I could not attend any of the performances conducted by Thomas Adès himself, but the work of Robert Houssart was optimum. The orchestra and scenography were in full synchronicity. While it is a tantalizing task to discuss the work of the sixteen main soloists of the opera, on a general level, it is important to say that all of them were pretty great. They were all properly cast and were extremely committed to the very demanding aspects of the opera. There were no weak links.

In regards the interesting relationship between intelligibility and unintelligibility of the sung text created by Adès, two singers represented especially well these two extremes. The excellent Jarrett Ott as Colonel Álvaro Gómez worked as a grounding character of the opera. His English was intentionally crystalline, becoming a dramatical grounding point of the performance. His character’s apparent ignorance of music and art does not affect his principles, rescuing the most enigmatic musical character of the opera, Leticia Maynar, from being raped by the conductor Alberto Roc. There is an odd sense of decency in his character that is transmitted by his performance, almost as if a Colonel could be a savior ingenue travestied in a light lyric voice.

His counterpart, the prima donna Leticia Maynar (nicknamed in the opera as the Valkyrie) embodied the untouchable and impenetrable aspect of music. Gloria Tronel exhilarated the audience with her extensive high notes (the part is absurdly high). Her voice, with a full tight vibrato, seemed to overcome all the role’s difficulties with ease (at just one moment in the night did it seem that she might have shortened one note). Unlike Ott, whose earnestness makes him accessible, Tronel made everything mysterious and beautiful. Her English is unintelligible, both because it is too high for the vowels, and also because Adès and Carins’s libretto gives her lines that will take a generation to make sense of. But beyond that, Tronel brought a sense of distinction and uniqueness to the night. Her vibrato made her look different than anyone else—she clearly was a diva not meant to be fully understood.

Jacquelyn Stucker sang the hostess Lucía de Nobile with lyrical perfection and bodily presence in her extramarital affairs. The soprano, gifted with a lyrical voice, managed to make the role something distinguished. Her husband, Edmundo de Nobile, sung by Nicky Spence, was a tragic figure unaware of half of his wife marital misdeeds; his almost sacrificial moments were elevated by his tenor voice, which had something deep and guttural about it.

Hillary Summers brings to the sad and ill figure of Leonora Palma a vocal dignity and sobriety that is rare. The contralto might have some shown some small issues in intonation, but she has a beautiful voice, and a sense of phrasing that made the character less needy than might be suggested by the libretto.

The doctor Carlos Conde, sung by Clive Bayley, gave his usual good performance. His voice and good vocal work made him the usual figure of authority that we, perhaps, despise and like at the same rate.

Philippe Sly, as the ill-fated Señor Russell, showed his usual charm and ease. It is strange to see such a young singer, with all the appearance of youth, often cast as an aging patriarch—perhaps this is the fate of a bass-baryton. His voice still exulted in a certain kind of youthfulness hard to find and in the interludes, Sly seemed to enjoy himself dancing as if in an underground club. Certainly he was having fun while living in chaos.

Christine Rice as Blanca Delgado had beautiful moments singing along with the ondes de martinot, especially in her striking aria “over the sea.” Clearly the soprano is extremely familiar with the character, making it more and more humane each time. To my knowledge, her voice sounded better in Paris than in the run in New York. The phrases were more focused and the melancholia of the piece was more refined than before; it was quite good to see.

The conductor Alberto Roc, Blanca’s husband, is a character perhaps more remarkable for his scenic deeds than for his vocal parts. Paul Gay was efficient, especially in the semi-rape scene.

Frédéric Antoun sounded more than comfortable singing Count Raúl Yebenes, a role he created.

The opera showcases a series of deranged couples, though two are more remarkable than the others. On the incestuous side, we have the siblings Francisco and Sílvia de Avíla, performed by Claudia Boyle and Anthony Roth Costanzo. While Boyle seemed a bit more discreet in her problematic relationship, Costanzo was the most unsufferable of histrionics. His suffering from his ulcers, his humiliation at defecating in his pants, and his larger experience of abjection seemed to be overshadowed by the obvious fun Costanzo had playing the role. In fact, few things were funnier—and silly—in the opera than his spoon observations in a vibratoless, almost infantile voice. Clearly a good debut at Paris Opera.

The more virtuous couple, the suicidal Eduardo and Beatriz, played by Filipe Manu and Amina Edris, provided some interesting moments of a parody of romantic love. They both blended their voices quite well and shared much chemistry on the stage.

Finally, the perhaps pedophilic Father Sansón was ominously played by Régis Mengus. Sílvia de Avíla’s son Yole was ingeniously played by Neil Rivet. Even though his part was vocally small, his face of terror and fear, especially in the final moments of the opera, really marked the performance, as if finally someone could see how terrible it all was.

The smaller roles were well played by singers of the Opera Atelier and Lyric Troop. Special attention must be given to Ilanah Lobel-Torres and Nicholas Jones.

Once Matthew Aucoin wrote that he felt “The Exterminating Angel” looked like “burning money.” He meant it in a good way. But, now that it seems that contemporary opera has found new momentum, “The Exterminating Angel” might be a defining work in an opera trend that seeks the big and great. After all, it seems to me that these huge new opera houses have finally found a repertoire that challenges them to live up to their promise.


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