Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Guest Post: The Exterminating Angel

Review by Burst of Beaden

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
April 24, 2017

Music by Thomas Ades
Libretto by Tom Cairns
Conducted by Thomas Ades
Directed by Tom Cairns
Royal Opera Orchestra & Chorus

For anyone who has seen Luis Bunuel's 1962 surrealist film, "The Exterminating Angel", the idea of writing a theatrical version might seem like a very bad idea The film depicts a dinner party where the guests are not able to call it a night and leave. They remain in the same room for weeks, with disturbing results. This situation is inherently static and claustrophobic. The main events are psychological rather than actual.

Despite this basis, two important composers, Thomas Ades and Stephen Sondhiem, have decided to set this piece to music. Sondheim is adapting 2 Bunuel films "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie" (1972) and "The Exterminating Angel" as a two-act musical entitled "Bunuel," which had a workshop performance in November 2016. A New York opening is planned for the near future.

Ades's opera, also entitled "The Exterminating Angel," premiered in Salzburg at the relatively intimate Haus fur Mozart in August 2016. The U.K. premiere took place in London at The Royal Opera House on April 24 ,2017, with (as far as I can tell) the same cast, Ades conducting. (The opera will be performed at the Met next fall with mostly the same cast and conductor). I was able to get a ticket for the sold-out London premiere by visiting the box office and getting a returned ticket.

I'm not a music critic or a trained musicologist, so I will not try to describe this huge, overwhelming, but ultimately rewarding score. For that I refer you to Alex Ross's excellent critique of the Salzburg opening in the New Yorker ( 

Ades (the composer) does not ease the audience into the opera's dense and complex sound world. For example, the entrance of the party guests is accompanied by loud blasts from the orchestra that are not comfortingly diatonic or chromatic. We are immediately adrift in a Berg-like vortex of sound. 

As told repeatedly in the program notes, the music is a "musical collage" that includes parodies of late romantic, 12 tone, baroque, folk, bel canto, symphonic, … I must say that I didn't discern any rock, hip-hop, or rap (doesn't mean it wasn't included, though). I could discern recitative, trios, duets, arias, songs, choruses, and orchestral interludes. But in the end, I just let the music wash over me without trying to analyze it, which is an approach that I recommend.

The cast includes the expected array of S-MS-T-B-B parts. This being Ades, the cast also includes the unexpected. There is a brilliantly applied use of the counter-tenor voice for a highly agitated young man, who at one point complains that he cannot drink coffee with a tea spoon. The "diva" character sings in a high tessitura like that of Ariel in Ades "The Tempest." In other words, maybe only dogs can actually hear every note. 

It's an opera with a very large cast of characters. (At one point, I counted 11 characters onstage, but there are more.)   How to tell them apart?  Who are the principal characters? Who are the minor characters? Where's the exposition that tells us right away who the host and hostess are? Who is the diva of the piece?  Why are there sheep onstage before the opera begins and are they principal characters? Needless to say, I was perplexed, but by the second act, I got my bearings.

There are several starry singers in the cast, including Anne Sofie Von Otter (a neurotic woman), John Tomlinson (her doctor), Thomas Allen (a conductor), Christina Rice (his wife, a pianist), Charles Workman (host), Amanda Echalaz (hostess), Sally Matthews (a widowed mother), Iestyn Davies (her highly agitated brother), and  Audrey Luna (a diva). The singers were all excellent and comfortable in their roles. I must say it was fun to see Sir Thomas Allen running around in his boxer shorts, compete with garters, in the second and third acts. 

I would like to give shout-outs to a few musical passages where Ades extends a perhaps patronizing had to the less-musically sophisticated of us in the audience: 
  • The interlude between acts 1 and 2. It was wonderful and Ades (the conductor) and the orchestra played the heck out of it. (It is as brilliant as interludes in "Peter Grimes" or "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.") 
  • Christina Rices's poignant singing of a song-within-the-opera in Act 1.
  • The diva's final virtuoso aria in act 3, in which Audrey Luna makes the opera her own. 
So, what of the opera itself? Does it succeed? I think it does succeed, on its own terms.
Just like the characters in the opera, we, the audience, are guests who are transfixed by an invisible force. For us, the invisible force is the opera; our Exterminating Angel is Ades himself.  (I'm not making this up, the clues are in the libretto.) What the opera does, what Ades accomplishes, is to hold up a brilliant, unflattering mirror to us, the audience. We must look back. Bravo, Ades, for that!

No comments: