|The Cast of "Exterminating Angel"|
(photo: Ken Howard)
Before the Metropolitan Opera performance of Exterminating Angel began, the audience was greeted with a bucolic scene featuring three (live in HD) sheep. It was no harbinger of things to come, however, as this opera is far from pastoral. The opera was composed (and here conducted) by Thomas Ades (whose previous work includes the brief Powder Her Face and the Met's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest) with a libretto by Tom Cairns (also in charge of this Production). Ades' latest work is being given its American premiere by the Met (in a co-production with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Royal Danish Theatre, and the Salzburg Festival). Based on the classic 1962 surrealist film by Luis Bunuel, (who wrote the screenplay with Luis Alcoriza), this version of the story is, like its source, an unusual challenge to understand and accept. For opera audiences, it's also unusual in that it demands singers for no fewer than fifteen principal roles; as operas go, it's a surreal killer, a macabre comedy wherein people enter a mansion where they then find that they are incapable of leaving, with no explicable reason for their stasis. This, as the late film critic Roger Ebert noted, is the film's “punch line”. As Bunuel famously stated, the best explanation of the work is that, “from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation”.
The setting is the deluxe mansion of Edmundo and Lucia de Nobile (Joseph Kaiser and Amanda Echalaz), following their return from a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. Though a dinner party is about to begin, some servants inexplicably leave. As the dozen guests, including Francisco and Silvia de Avila (Iestyn Davies and Sally Matthews), Alberto Roc (Rod Gilfrey), Colonel Alvaro Gomez (David Adam Moore), Blanca Delgado (Christine Rice) and Leonora Palma (Alice Coote) enjoy their meal, the rest of the servants leave, except for the butler Julio (Christian Van Horn). As the time to depart approaches, no one is motivated to leave and instead make themselves comfortable for the night. Dr. Carlos Conde (Sir John Tomlinson) examines one guest, Senor Russell (Kevin Burdette), who is dying, but still no one can leave the room. When breakfast is brought by the butler, the opera diva Leticia Maynar (Audrey Luna) urges him not to enter the drawing room, but he does and is then also trapped. The guests start to panic, and Russell dies during the night. Meanwhile a crowd of people have gathered outside the house, unable to enter. The butler and Raul Yebenes (Frederic Antoun) burst a pipe to obtain water. The guests become increasingly irrational, and Eduardo (David Portillo) and Beatriz (Sophie Bevan) commit suicide. The guests begin to believe that a sacrifice is needed to secure their escape. Leticia suddenly realizes that everyone is in the same position that each was in when their captivity began, and suggests a plan of escape, not to be divulged here.
Since plot development is minimal, vocalizing and movement are more crucial than ever. There are welcome turns by such familiar singers as Gilfrey and Coote. Luna (last heard in the Met's 2012 production of Ades' The Tempest) gets to deliver a noteworthy A above high C, a note that only sheep can hear (and which Luna referred to as a “vocal glass ceiling”). The score is as dense as other works by Ades but more lush. His music has been described as possessing a sense of narrative, as he knows how to produce drama in his scores; in this work, this ability is manifested in conveying the absurdity of the situation. It is of interest that Bunuel chose not to have a single note of music in his film (save for some bells), despite the fact that several guests are musicians. Ades in his choice of music magnifies the bombast of the first act and stresses melancholy and reflection in the second briefer act. Visually, the production mirrors the sound of his score, with the stark Set and Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler, sharp Lighting Design by Jon Clark, vivid Projection Design by Tal Yarden and minimal Choreography by Amir Hosseinpour. The HD broadcast was directed by Gary Halvorson. The HD Host was Susan Graham, who described this opera as “the dinner party from hell”.
Coincidentally, Stephen Sondheim is currently working (with playwright David Ives) on a musical duo of two Bunuel films, Exterminating Angel, with guests at a dinner party unable to leave, and Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about guests forever sitting down to a feast but repeatedly being frustrated in their desire to eat. Announced three years ago, the former should make for an interesting comparison with its operatic treatment. Meanwhile, one can easily find a contemporary parallel to the stagnant Spanish elites in their complacent attitude toward the rise of Franco. Our own top one percent today seem complicit and inert, seen through the prism of their powerlessness to confront present-day presidential pomposity. In real life as on the operatic stage, there may not be happy endings, especially for sheep.
The opera has a decidedly cumulative and hypnotic effect, at first not as accessible as the composer's previous works, but the power of his musicality wins one over. As Ades noted during his intermission interview, he considers his score to be the “exterminating angel”. He uses not only the eerie horror-film-like instrument the ondes martenot but also tiny (1/32 the normal size) violins, producing scary effects. It may not become your favorite operatic work, but it will enrich and expand your world once you've experienced the entire score and this weird story centered on abulia (the inability to make decisions). Don't let your own abulia keep you from attending this unique work.
For the record, the three sheep, Lucy, Rosie and Mary, all were making their Met Opera debuts.
Encore HD Broadcasts will be offered on Weds. Nov.29th at 1pm and 6:30pm at a theater near you.