Composer: Thomas Adès
Conductor: Thomas Adès
Librettist: Tom Cairns
Director/Producer: Tom Cairns
Frédéric Antoun: Raúl Yebenes
Sophie Bevan: Beatriz
Kevin Burdette: Señor Russell
Alice Coote: Leonora Palma
Iestyn Davies: Francisco de Ávila
Amanda Echalaz: Lucia de Nobile
Rod Gilfry: Alberto Roc
Joseph Kaiser: Edmundo de Nobile
Audrey Luna: Leticia Mayvar
Sally Matthews: Silvia de Ávila
David Adam Moore: Colonel Álvaro Gómez
David Portillo: Eduardo
Christine Rice: Blanca Delgado
Sir John Tomlinson: Doctor Carlos Conde
Christian van Horn: Julio
The decision-makers at the Metropolitan Opera have never been known for their forward programming, but you have to give it to them, when they decide to venture into intriguing new territory, they often know how to choose them. And this new season is no exception with Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel flying high above the other 21 predictable works in terms of the bold vision it has brought and the genuine excitement it has ignited.
Nobody will ever be able to fault England’s favorite enfant terrible composer for having plebeian tastes. After transforming William Shakespeare’s magic tale The Tempest into an uneven but mostly thrilling opera, he turned his attention to Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel and came up with an even more ambitious opera that prompted ecstatic reviews when it first came out in Salzburg in 2016.
Ecstatic reviews popped up all over New York City too after the Salzburg production opened here a couple of weeks ago, with the composer himself conducting a totally different orchestra and slightly different cast, and filled up the large opera house with remarkable efficiency. The Met packed with an eclectic audience giddily looking forward to a modern production in a rare sight, but last Tuesday night that is just what fellow opera lovers Dawn and Brian and I happily witnessed.
Among the elements of Buñuel’s film that would understandably be attractive to an out-of-the-box composer like Adès is probably the sheer absurdity of having the participants of a fancy dinner party trapped inside the dining room for no good, or even bad, reason and eventually running out of bare necessities, including food, water, and manners.
One of the particularities of The Exterminating Angel is that it includes no fewer than a dozen main characters who are more or less constantly on the stage, plus a few minor roles, mostly servants who somehow had the good sense to escape early. Therefore, the main challenge for the audience was to figure out who was who as the dinner guests and butler were all busy mingling politely first, and then definitely less so.
The women were much easier to tell apart thanks to their distinct glamorous outfits and sharply defined traits. Audrey Luna as the soprano Leticia may actually be the one who has been generating the most press with the stratospheric upper notes that we had already endured in The Tempest. Her vocals feats often made her speech difficult to decipher, but on the other hand, they really made you appreciate the few times she came down from her high perch for some truly exquisite singing.
Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was Blanca Delgado, the pianist and singer who at some point capably calmed things down with a hauntingly beautiful song from the Ladino tradition of Sephardic Jews. It was an off moment that seemed to come out of nowhere but, come to think of it, in fact cleverly underlined the confusion and unpredictability of the whole situation.
More predictable was the fate of terminally ill Leonora Palma, and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote's wonderfully nuanced singing efficiently conveyed her complex character, whether she unexpectedly gave her doctor a luscious kiss or engaged in an hallucinatory dance.
From a distance at least the men was much harder to distinguish as they all wore formal evening wear, but a couple of them eventually stood out too. For one, there was counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, who as the insufferably supercilious aristocrat Francesco provided one of the most hilarious speeches of the entire opera as he was obsessively explaining the differences among the various types of spoons.
On the other end of the vocal spectrum was veteran bass John Tomlinson as the unwaveringly poised, elderly doctor Conde whose dead-pan delivery of his recurring punch line about death was as comically dark as it could get. And he was the apparent voice of reason.
One of the most moving touches of the essentially cynical opera was the couple of young lovers Beatriz and Eduardo, endearingly impersonated by soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor David Portillo, who were staunchly inseparable until the very end. Turning the closet into a make-shift love nest, they got to sing the most gorgeous music of the entire score all the way to their heart-breaking final duet.
Speaking of music, it is probably hard to come up with an opera composition that is so relentlessly inventive, filled with all kinds of sonority whose originality is so completely in tune with the surrealist atmosphere and bizarre premise. To make it all happen, Adès brought in unusual but legitimate instruments such as an ondes Martenot and eight tiny violins to create a wide range of eerie sounds. More mundane items such as a small door, rocks, paper and a salad bowl contributed in various capacities too, and by all accounts the orchestra, conducted by the composer himself, had a ball.
In fact, one of the most exhilarating musical treats came between Act I and II when a sudden surge of high-precision percussion that would not been out of place at a heavy metal concert both released the tension that had been slowly building and sent an ominous warning about the more unappetizing things to come. Hell was breaking loose big time.
As if to encourage the audience to check their logical thinking at the door, the opening scene of the opera, which included the rising of the Met's famous chandeliers, was repeated twice. That may have felt rather weird and gimmicky at first, but certainly not more so than the presence of live sheep, which apparently are the de rigueur accessory in opera productions these days, or an incongruous bear, which at least was fake or projected in the background (The Met's insurance policy may have had something to do with that). But then again, all's fair when regular rules no longer apply.
The rest of the décor, which was dominated by a huge wooden arch on a revolving stage, and the costumes were smartly designed to convey an elegant upscale house that will become more and more claustrophobic and wild as primitive needs are not being met. Eventually, the ghost-like guests will find themselves among a colorful crowd of ordinary people where their grossly disheveled looks will not escape notice.
The Met's audience fared much better and seemed generally grateful, if occasionally bewildered, for the experience. Thomas Adès has struck twice at the Met now. I am already looking forward to number three.