Opera: Thomas Adés / The Exterminating Angel

The Metropolitan Opera (2017)
Composed by Thomas Adès / Libretto by Tom Cairns
Audrey Luna (Leticia), Amanda Echalaz (Lucía), Sally Matthews (Silvia), Sophie Bevan (Beatriz), Alice Coote (Leonora), Christine Rice (Blanca), Iestyn Davies (Francisco), Joseph Kaiser (Nobile), Frédéric Antoun (Raúl), David Portillo (Eduardo), David Adam Moore (Colonel), Rod Gilfry (Roc), Kevin Burdette (Russell), Christian Van Horn (Julio), and Sir John Tomlinson (Doctor). 

After becoming fed up with scrounging around YouTube looking for modern operas, I finally bit the bullet and subscribed to The Metropolitan Opera’s TV app. Now I have lots of crazy excruciating performances to thrill to and pen saucy observations about. And the first on my list is one that I’ve been wanting to see for some time now, as it’s atop the lists of many critics’ “greatest 21st century operas” lists: Thomas AdésThe Exterminating Angel

If you don’t know the story – adapted from the 1962 film by Luis Buñuel – it’s about a dinner party attended by a group of socialites who find that when dinner is over and they go for their coats, some unseen power is preventing them from leaving the dining room. Everyone becomes agitated and freaks out about how they can’t get out of the place and as the scenes progress carnage ensues, but the story line about what or why is left to individual interpretation. The libretto that was fashioned from the film’s plot is lean and poetic, occasionally offering offbeat black humor, indifferently attempting to flesh out a plot that’s nothing but a cipher. The mysteriousness Buñuel-vintage surrealism, carried over from the film version to this operatic adaptation by Adés & Cairns.

From the overture forward Adés’ tonal language shows itself to be relentless and highly original. The music and singing are at a high state of excitement for the first half hour or so. Even the most banal exchange is delivered with some level of musical agitation. With the barrage of dissonance, dense orchestration and zigzaggy vocal lines in Act I everything gets a bit soupy and I fought to stay engaged. I became afraid that I’d have to endure it all for 2+ hours and started wondering when it was all going to let up. It did eventually, and contrasting, compelling instrumental interludes emerged: Bianca plays the on-set piano and a heady melange of what sounds like harp, piano and pizz strings emanate from the orchestra pit. Multiple clock bells chime as guests resign themselves to staying the night. The dynamic thunder of the orchestra players to evoke the force of whatever surreal demons are keeping them in the room. 

This powerful music requires a large group of players. Adés is known for using an expanded instrument roster including some unique choices like a military academy’s worth of snare drums, ¾ size violins, and the piece of gear that has gotten the most attention in the runup to the world premiere, an Ondes Martenot – a primitive synthesizer that you play by futzing around with a piece of wire to get pitch bend and portamento effects. Typical that in the head-on-backwards world of classical music the best electronic instrument Adés could throw into the mix is a relic from the 1920s that the music producer probably had to source from some Scarsdale flea market. 

Arias are scarce in Exterminating Angel, though the female party guests do have extended solo bits between group interactions. Not many melodies stick with me. A brief moment in the first act between Beatriz and Eduardo, Life is funny and strange, I might be able to recall well enough to whistle. Maybe. If I listened to it about a dozen times a day. Their love/lust duet in Act I, What is Today?, is more satisfying but also not exactly anything you’ll be humming to yourself outside the hall after the performance while you wait for the Uber.

And there’s this sequence from a scene called The Doctor’s Fit, playing out the morning after where Russell, who had been laying on stage left in a faux coma for about 15 minutes of the proceedings, miraculously awakens to sing “I am happy… so very happy” with a melodic line so gut-churning it will have you reaching for the Dramamine

The plot unfolds with a restless type of dramatic churn. Crowds of people trying to get into the room the protagonists occupy, some police arrive on the scene to push everyone around, some lambs are slaughtered, and a muzzled pet bear is introduced. Looked like a real bear at first, and I was hopeful that he might add real spice to the show by running amok in the Grand Tier bar area. But as he emerged from the shadows you could see it was only a dwarf in a bear costume. Too bad. Bears let loose in the audience — real Exterminating Angels! 

As always, the Met’s set design is wonderful, elegant, and imposing. A towering wooden arch, could that be that real wood? No I doubt it, it’s probably Ikea ASKERSUND with the printed veneer option in dark brown ash. In the moody lighting who’ll know? There is also good use of the large video screen offering the counterplay of occasional moving images, like in Act II when Leonora has a nightmare and a green hand dances on the curtains high above her head. 

And there you have it – another night of sturm und drang at the good old Met. Prime set and costume design, a perversely post-moral story about decadent rich assholes obsessed with sex, food, impotence, comfort and death all wrapped up in an elaborately brocaded and magnificently played score of modern classical music. 

Alas, my hope that sometime during the performance the doors to the venue would be locked from the outside to prevent the patrons from escaping, and the action onstage would break the levee of the proscenium arch to flow unrestrained into the seats to recruit and ensnare those in attendance into their foul hell – but this did not happen. I would have liked to think that everyone in the cast and paying audience is still trapped in a concert hall at Lincoln Center with the entire roster of paying customers exploring the limits of human endurance and depravity. 

Instead, the anticlimactic ending had the patrons applauding and shouting a few bravos to the bowing cast and musicians before they exited the hall to enjoy the posh pleasures of Manhattan, perhaps with reflections of themselves dancing in their heads. After experiencing The Exterminating Angel, will they see themselves in every $800 per person multi-course meal at that new molecular gastronomy joint, in every bespoke cup of monkey turd cold brew, every $2M brownstone rehab, and every elaborately templated divorce settlement? We are all such wretched creatures and Thomas Adés knows it. In the tradition of Noël Coward, Stephen Sondheim, Woody Allen and so many other chroniclers of the ennui-suffused dolce vita, Adès employs the seductive tactic for success in high culture: Build a mirror, and they will come.