Hailing from Salzburg and London, Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel made its much anticipated New York debut on October 26th at the Metropolitan Opera. Adès himself conducted, and the opening night audience greeted him, the opera, and its superlative vocalists with considerable enthusiasm. The opera is based on the 1962 surrealist film by Luis Buñuel of the same name, featuring an elegant after-opera dinner party attended by upper-crust denizens of Francisco Franco’s Spain. It should be noted that Adès and director Tom Cairns eschew the deeply ironic and grim conclusion found in Luis Buñuel’s film in their opera. Instead they opt for a more ambiguous outcome and fate for their characters. This marks a significant alteration to the filmic source, and it invites alternative interpretations to the original tale.
Adès conducts the Met’s orchestra with verve, and the ensemble singing of the cast is a marvel of versatility and polish. It seems unfair to single out just a few vocalists, yet the contributions of soprano Audrey Luna, with her stratospheric range, as Leticia, soprano Sally Matthews as Silvia, and bass John Tomlinson as Doctor Carlos Conde do deserve special mention.
The opera opens to the sound of distant chimes, as live lambs of the dinner hosts’ mansion garden graze on stage (this is grand opera, after all). The twelve guests of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile are expected any time, but among the servants of the house there spreads a sensation of alarm, the premonition that something truly awful is about to occur. One-by-one, the help offer excuses and flee the mansion for their own preservation.
Among the twelve guests are Leticia, “La Valkiria,” star of their just-seen opera, Blanca, a pianist who provides entertainment on the hosts’ piano, the young engaged couple Eduardo and Beatriz, and Doctor Carlos Conde, who frequently serves as superego and motival narrator for the goings on. We find a glittering party at start, however, toward the end of the first act, the hosts and guests come to realize that something has gone very wrong: despite all their efforts, they are unable to leave the house. They are literally trapped at the party with no apparent way out. The libretto provides no obvious explanation for why this should be apart from the supposed “agent” of the opera’s enigmatic title. This party’s members only recourse now is to make the best of their quixotic situation, and host Nobile generously offers that his guests are welcome to sleep the night on his sofas and chairs.
Adès opens act two with a powerful and ominous orchestral interlude, suggesting the horrors to come. As the partygoers greet the next day, they begin to appreciate the peril they’re in: they must fend for themselves for mere basics such as food and water, and for better or worse, they’re stuck with each other too. Out of confusion and fear, recrimination sets in, and they begin to reveal the hidden prejudices they hold toward each other. We’re reminded of Sartre’s sour dictum that “Hell is other people,” and so it is that the opera proceeds to ressemble Lord of the Flies for rich people.
Acts two and three are expository of the party’s descent into madness. Days begin to pass, and not all guests are destined to survive the ordeal. Other guests give in to various acts of barbarism, or to despond and delirium. The elderly and ailing Señor Russell falls into a coma, awakens to speaks again, announcing he’ll not be there for the “extermination,” and then succumbs. The couple Eduardo and Beatriz, in their desperation, suicide in a naked embrace. Scavenging for water, guests Julio and Raul contrive to smash through the floor of the drawing room, establishing a well from a water-pipe below. Having run low on party left-overs, the guests decide they must slaughter the garden lambs, which they then proceed to cook on a makeshift fire of broken furniture pieces and floorboards. In an act of hysteria, the conductor Alberto Roc, Blanca’s husband, molests Leticia on the floor, although Raul, an explorer, choses to believe the Colonel Álvaro Gómez is the culprit and they begin to fight.
As act three proceeds, the guests ruminate on how cultic and magical practices might break the spell of their imprisonment. Eventually they settle on the notion of a sacrificial offering. Wondering who or what sacrificial creature might suffice, in time their host Edmondo de Nobile suggests that he might be that sacrifice, offering to kill himself. At this point in the opera, we find ourselves wondering: is Adès going to offer these now hapless elegants any hope?
Thomas Adès is a bona fide modernist, and The Exterminating Angel frequently employs modernist music’s atonal and semi-tonal lingua franca for its vocal lines. Adès composes opera here as heir to the seminal Alban Berg, among others. We can attribute György Ligeti’s spatial environmentalism and focus on texture as influence on Adès as well. Adès is especially adept at setting up large sonic structures. Within these structures he introduces bold and vivid musical soundscapes, frequently resourcing unusual instrumental colorations. There are other splendid moments in his operas when his arias and orchestral interludes become lyric, near-harmonic melodies, that yet exemplify the dictum “make it new”. In these moments, Adès’ compositions can take on gorgeous and haunting melancholic sentiment.*
Adès conceives of his music for Exterminating Angel as “like an underground river,” and that upon looking for it, listeners will find that “it will in the end, connect the entire text.”** In his ambition to establish a musical outcome of this kind, Adès relies on a sizable orchestra heavy with strings and percussion. There are moments in this very complex score when the orchestra sounds as though it consists entirely of percussionists, including the strings. The spatial interiority of Adès’ approach to composition also conjures an effect I’ve heard in no other opera composer’s music so far, and that is an intuition of the ghost of melodic operas past, a sort of built-in “conceptual echo” that accompanies the particular notes written and so heard from the score. This paradoxical effect, since it is certainly produced by the ideas found in the score itself, is truly uncanny, and it elicits at once an aura of loss and mystery while establishing a new kind of musical presence.
So what are we to make of this opera’s reference to an “exterminating angel”? Both Buñuel and Adès present us with an upper class that is supercilious and self-absorbed. They seem not to know of the quotidian and dire struggles for politics and survival going on outside their mansions in the greater world. At very least, these attributes may be counted among their sins. So as presumed agent of the partygoers plight, what sort of identity could this angel have, or, what kind of arbitrary force may it be? Does the “exterminating angel” represent divine intervention of some kind, or could it be a wished-for political and social Deus ex Machina, a moral device established by Buñuel?
Alternately, could the paralyzing and destructive angel “operate” externally and internally to and of the assembled guests, that is, as a manifestation of their collective unconscious? If this were the case, it may be that an unacknowledged demiurge and secret wish for deeper engagement with reality, with the world outside their privilege, is the lacune that informs their lives. Yet another consideration enters in: along with their detachment it’s obvious they have lost their sense of the tragic.
Toward the end of the third act, and along with the guests’ progressive withdrawal into delerium, Adès’ score loosens up, taking on a dreamlike lyricism. We get arias indicating the fantasies and horrors of the partygoers’ regressions. Silvia takes up the corpse of one of the lambs and imagines she’s singing a lullaby to her son Yoli, who is exiled from her outside the party. In their quest for existential release and freedom, the guests invoke familiar tokens of European civilization. Should magic and conjuring not save them, it’s hard not to notice the lambs, dead or alive. The ageing Leonora, who is suffering from cancer, tries to make Doctor Conde promise he’ll take her on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where they can prostrate themselves before the Virgin in gratitude for her imagined release, and, in one of the funniest lines of the evening, she requests that he pledge to buy for her there “a washable rubber Virgin.”
But then, as it goes, Leticia notices and announces to all that they find themselves, at this very moment, in the same positions they had been prior, the instant when they realized curse had commenced. And, Leticia’s fortuitous epiphany inspires in them a reenactment of that earlier moment, a mime of the gestures and movements that accompanied their fall into peril. This unexpected and strange synchronicity somehow becomes the caesura and action that undoes the exterminating angel’s paralyzing curse. The party has found their chance to move again, and they proceed to pass across the threshold of their keep. As the spell is broken, the mansion yields to become a public square, and suddenly they are joined by the populace and gendarmes who were gathered outside the house. The partygoers disperse among the crowd that now fills the stage in a rush of somatic action. Silvia is still desperately seeking her son, loss and excitement are experienced all at once, and from here Thomas Adès directs the cast and orchestra to a tumultuous, loud and frantic final chord as a great flash of light delineates and fires up the border of the proscenium.
The Exterminating Angel
Music by Thomas Adès, libretto by Tom Cairns and the composer, based on the screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza, direction by Tom Cairns, set and costume designs by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting design by Jon Clark. Conducted by Thomas Adès
*E.g. Caliban’s aria “Friends don’t fear” from Act II of Adès’ The Tempest
**See Adès’ comments at Salzburg’s FestspielFenster below:
Donald Lindeman is New York City Art and Opera Critic for Riot Material magazine. Mr. Lindeman majored in Art History at Colgate University, BA, 1974, and earned his MA in Art History, Columbia University, New York, 1976. From1993 to 2007, he was indexer and then Assistant Editor at Art Index, H.W. Wilson Co (metadata since sold to EBSCO). His MA thesis was “The Art of Paul Kleein Transition: 1918-1925.”