27 Oct The Exterminating Angel Review
Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film “The Exterminating Angel,” a surreal, bleakly comic yet disturbing fantasy, would seem to be about feeling trapped. An aristocratic couple invite a group of friends to their mansion for a post-opera dinner. For inexplicable reasons, both the hosts and the guests find themselves unable to leave the salon.
They are psychologically, though not physically, imprisoned.
The composer Thomas Adès has his own take on Buñuel’s classic work, as he explained in interviews when his opera “The Exterminating Angel,” based on the film, had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2016.
To him, the guests suddenly experience an absence of will. What gets exterminated by some force — either internal, imposed or both — is the will to act. That theme came through powerfully in this stunningly inventive opera when it was performed at Salzburg. It came through even more viscerally on Wednesday, when the work had its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, with Mr. Adès conducting.
The opera has discomforting timeliness at this moment, when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking.
Buñuel’s film has almost no music. In this audacious opera — for which Tom Cairns, the director of the production, wrote the libretto in collaboration with Mr. Adès — the music digs deep. Mr. Adès’s wild, searing score explores the emotional undercurrents of the story and fleshes out the horror of the characters’ situation.
My one reservation about the opera when I first heard it was that to some degree, Mr. Adès explored the dark side of Buñuel’s tale, which has been seen as a bitter critique of elite classes during Franco’s regime in Spain, at the expense of its bizarrely comic elements.
But after hearing it at the Met, I feel different. Mr. Adès’s thorny, modernist music, played with crackling precision and color by the orchestra, bristled with manic, almost madcap, energy.
Take the crucial opening scenes, which hew pretty closely to the film. The servants of the house, who somehow sense disaster coming, have fled; and the hostess, Lucía de Nobile (the bright-voiced soprano Amanda Echalaz) is frantic with embarrassment. Her prickly husband, Edmundo (the suave tenor Joseph Kaiser), is also utterly indignant.
But Mr. Adès captures both the tension and absurdity of the crisis in a complex ensemble. The hosts greet their guests with unctuous exchanges, while the visitors, in overlapping and comically elongated phrases, voice refrains of “Enchanted, enchanted,” as the orchestra erupts with jumpy outbursts.
The effect here is compounded by a prankish touch in Mr. Cairns’s brilliant staging. The set (by Hildegard Bechtler, who also designed the costumes) shows a salon, with fine couches and glittering tables, framed by a large wooden structure that resembles an opera house proscenium. Only when the guests arrived onstage did the chandeliers in the Met’s auditorium start rising to the roof. Opera audiences are always trapped, in a sense, during a performance. On this night, for this opera, even more so.
Though “The Exterminating Angel” is a true ensemble piece, Mr. Adès gives distinct character traits and defining musical moments to most of the 15 solo roles. The coloratura soprano Audrey Luna, whose stratospheric upper range was put to use by Mr. Adès in his previous opera “The Tempest” (presented at the Met in 2012) excels as Leticia, an opera singer who had starred in the performance the guests have attended: The dinner party is in her honor.
But as hours and days go by, and everyone becomes increasingly confused and degraded, Leticia unravels, dispatching accusations in vocal bursts that reach screechy highs, yet somehow sound angelic.
Another guest, Blanca, a pianist (the mezzo-soprano Christine Rice), agrees to play something. In the film, the character performs a snappy 18th-century keyboard piece. Mr. Adès substitutes his own haunting variations on a song from the Ladino tradition of Sephardic Jews, music that captures the ambiguity of the moment.
It’s as if Blanca is searching through music’s past for clarity and willpower, yet speaking in a confused modern voice. Blanca arrives with her husband, Alberto (baritone Rod Gilfry), a conductor, and Liticia’s colleague, who proceeds to fall asleep on a couch while confusion reigns.
The soprano Sally Matthews brings a radiant voice and natural allure to Silvia de Ávila, a young widowed aristocrat who has a strangely close relationship with her prissy brother, Francesco (the vibrant countertenor Iestyn Davies).
Two tragic guests, in the face of unreality, seek solace together. Beatriz (the soprano Sophie Bevan) and Eduardo (the tenor David Portillo) are engaged and utterly absorbed in themselves. But Mr. Adès enshrouds them in the opera’s most rapturous music, an extended duet with sighing vocal lines and quizzical orchestral sonorities. In a suicide pact, the couple enjoy their first night of love in a closet, where they are later discovered dead.
The veteran bass John Tomlinson commands the stage as the elderly Doctor Conde, who is accompanied by his terminally ill patient Leonora, a needy woman obsessed with the occult, here the compelling mezzo-soprano Alice Coote.
As an opera composer, Mr. Adès often has the orchestra hug every note and syllable of a vocal line. This stylistic trait could easily be overdone. But the chords and sonorities he comes up with at once buttress and shake up vocal lines, so the effect, in his hands, lends intriguing dramatic complexity. Over all, this riveting, breathless, score — full of quick-cutting shifts, pointillist bursts, and episodes of ballistic intensity — may be his best work.
The anguished scene that will stay with me for a long while came late, a moment of motherly longing, when Silvia, now grimy, haggard and delirious, thinks about her little boy. She sings a fractured lullaby while caressing the head of a dead sheep (and how actual sheep come into the picture, I won’t give away). Silvia sounds as if she is recalling some distant, old hymn tune. Yet the disjointed orchestra grovels ominously in its depths while miniature violins play weirdly high, skittish sounds.
In a timid Met season very heavy on the staples, “The Exterminating Angel” is the company’s one bold offering. If you go to a single production this season, make it this one.