Met premiere of Adès’s The Exterminating Angel

The world has pretty much been going to pieces since it began, though just why depends on your historical perspective, closely tied up today, of course, to your age, sex, culture, station in society, what the Kardashians are up to and who’s running the country. Or was.

That said, when you think about it, state of the world today, Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel should be, just fancying a guess here, much less of a shocker to audiences these days than Verdi’s Rigoletto or La Traviata was to folks way back when.

But it is pretty shocking…and, more to the point, great opera theater too. Angel leaves one with a sort of healthy confusion, as perhaps did your first encounter with Lulu: there is so much going on, more than the attention can grasp at one sitting, and without a recording to consult now and again and again there’s no easy way to prepare for Angel this time around as there was for the three other operas mentioned so far. Well, you could watch the film and buy lamb chops for dinner.

The Exterminating Angel is based on the acclaimed 1962 Luis Buñuel film El Ángel Exterminador. The libretto (in English) by Tom Cairns, in collaboration with the composer, is based to a great extent on the screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza, but there are important differences. Though certainly good preparation, the point of watching the film is not to evaluate how well Cairns and Adès copy Buñuel, but rather it is so you can build basic set of organizing schema with which to process the unfolding plot on stage. Each "wait, what?" blocks the next moment.

The production, also by Tom Cairns, has sets and costumes designed by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting design by Jon Clark, projections designed by Tal Yarden. Amir Hosseinpour choreographs.

Lucia de Nobile chats with Silvia as her brother Francisco looks on, Leticia behind him  

Lucia de Nobile chats with Silvia as her brother Francisco looks on, Leticia behind him 

The characters include the gracious hosts Lucia and Edmundo de Nobile (sung well by Amanda Echalaz and Joseph Kaiser). They have invited friends and acquaintances over for a supper party after a night at the opera, Mexico City in the ‘60s. Among the party guests are the soprano Leticia Maynar (high soprano, also excellent Audrey Luna), the newly engaged Beatriz and Eduardo (the passionate pair taken by Sophie Bevan and David Portillo), Silvia de Ávila, a widow, along with her petulant young brother Francisco de Ávila (Sally Matthews and Iestyn Davies), the terminal and hallucinating presage Leonora Palma (Alice Coote), the pianist Blanca Delgado (Christine Rice), her husband Alberto Roc (Rod Gilfry), Raúl Yebenes, an explorer (Frédéric Antoun), the retired Col. Álvaro Gómez (David Adam Moore), the elderly Señor Russell (Kevin Burdette), Dr. Carlos Conde, the attending physician (the venerable John Tomlinson) and Julio (Christian Van Horn), the only one left of the house staff during the great confinement. There are nine other characters. The players are all eager to perform and well rehearsed to carry off the intricacies of the vocal writing and stage action. If you complain about standard repertory opera often being “phoned in” these days, The Exterminating Angel will be a welcome relief.  

Beatriz and Eduardo before sneaking away for some privacy

Beatriz and Eduardo before sneaking away for some privacy

Of the story, briefly, the guests enter the stage, back to the de Nobile’s for a post-opera dinner. The scene is repeated, mirroring the first time loop as in the original Buñuel film: the guests enter again, which tells us right away that something in their universe is going awry.

For some bizarre reason, they at first do not, but later cannot exit the room! Stuck, they work through their interpersonal issues, the facades of tuxedos and gowns, roles and personas falling away into more raw primitive ways of life. They are starving, they can’t clean themselves, they resort to eating the sheep intended originally as a clever entertainment. Who knows how long it will be before they begin eating themselves? Fortunately it’s a short opera.

There are three deaths over the course of their confinement, one by a sudden illness, the other two are suicides of passion, and a fourth, due to illness, is soon to happen. So, no, Exterminating Angel is not an ‘and then there were none’ kind of plot.

Silvia embraces what is left of a sheep

Silvia embraces what is left of a sheep

By the way, we meet the sheep, who are on stage as you walk into the auditorium before the opera begins. Don’t be alarmed, the real sheep have long since gone home to bed before the feast on stage in Act II: no animals were harmed in the Met’s new Exterminating Angel.

At the end, a takeover or coup by the military outside threatens the end of the gentile society as known by the imprisoned opera lovers. Is this what awaits civilization? Are we the next sheep?

The plot is simple as a screenplay logline, but underneath psychologically complex and intricate. The relationships between the players are worked out amidst the desperation of their situation. Yes, it’s complex, hard to grasp beyond the logline without a little help from your friends, but it is fathomable, after reading this and the Met’s various program notes.

Adès’s score covers a broad and deep canvas as well. His inclusion in the orchestra of an ondes Martenot creates an eerie sometimes ironic sound, coming just to let you know that things really aren’t good, in spite of what the characters believe. It’s a score that rewards listening several times. One hopes the Met plans to release it on DVD. The composer himself conducts.

Leonora Palma notices that Mr. Russell is not well of late; Doc Conde is in the background.

Leonora Palma notices that Mr. Russell is not well of late; Doc Conde is in the background.

The set and costumes are designed by Hildegard Bechtler. Though the bulk of the action takes place in the room of the mansion, scenes shift to the outside world where the confinement of the guests has become a news item and also where the military seems to be in revolt. The shifts in scenes are seamless; at times a black curtain falls like the dark of night to transition to the next morning.

This is prime opera theater, perfect, I say, for HD where the subtitles are easy to read without shifting your gaze, where likely closeups allow better for facial recognition and therefore better character identification, and where the facial expressions, central to grasping the layers of meaning in their utterances, are right there, in your face. True, closeups exclude surrounding action, but, fearing that, catch it first @ the Met itself. Don’t miss it. This production is a thrill that hopefully only gets better with more exposure.    

Reviewed performance: October 30, 2017, the Met’s second!

Photos: Ken Howard

Not a happy opera, not a happy Halloween either…going to pieces.

Hang in there. J.