By Rebecca Schmid
SALZBURG — Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel was the most anticipated event of the 2016 summer Salzburg Festival, and by and large, the new opera lives up to expectations. The approximately two-hour score is well paced and masterfully structured, with a sophisticated blend of dramatically vivid passages and eerie uncertainty that speaks to both lay audiences and contemporary music buffs.
The composer himself conducted the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, while Tom Cairns, who co-wrote the libretto, presided over direction. The 22-strong cast brought forth one gripping performance after another. The result was a cohesive adaptation of the eponymous 1962 Luis Buñuel film; the guests of a formal dinner party, finding themselves unable to leave the living room, enter into a nearly warlike state in which all civilized codes disintegrate.
The Exterminating Angel was a natural choice of subject matter for Adès, who was born and bred on the ideas of surrealism through his mother, an art historian. As proof of the classical music world’s faith in his ability to transform this psychologically perplexing story into what is his third opera, the production — seen at the second performance in the Haus für Mozart on Aug. 1 — will travel to its co-commissioners at Royal Opera Covent Garden in April-May 2017, the Metropolitan Opera in 2017-18, and to the Royal Danish Opera. (A musical-theater version of the film — and also Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie — by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist David Ives is tentatively scheduled to open at New York’s Public Theatre in late 2017 around the time of the Adès opera premiere at the Met.)
Adès can create cinematic passages in which the listener has the feeling of being stranded in the middle of nowhere; he also can distort a Viennese waltz until it spirals and dissolves. From the stabbing rhythms of a neo-baroque chaconne to ironic plays on tonality recalling Weill and Eisler to pathos-ridden orchestration evoking Janáček, it seems there is no idiom Adès is unable to consciously assimilate, veering seamlessly between dramatic extremes.
Together with director Cairns, Adès also paints the characters in vivid detail. The opera’s strongest moments are not in thick orchestral passages but intimate vignettes. The young couple Eduardo (Ed Lyon) and Beatriz (Sophie Bevan) — who choose a suicide pact over suffering through savage circumstances in the mansion of Edmondo and Lucia de Nobile (Charles Workman and Amanda Echalaz) — are given a particularly memorable duet in the third act (“What is today?”). It is sung from death to melting harmonies as their illuminated bodies float in a chamber across the stage. Dr. Carlos Conde (John Tomlinson), in an attempt to rationalize the situation, diagnoses the guests with abulia (a clinical lack of motivation), his singing steadily accompanied by low pitched earthy textures.
At the other end of the vocal spectrum is the diva Leticia (soprano Audrey Luna, who sang the virtuosic role of Ariel in Adès’ The Tempest). The character is at once a caricature of an opera singer and a redeeming force: it is ultimately her song that leads the characters across the living room threshold (an intriguing intensification of her role in Buñuel’s original plot). Luna remains technically unflappable through the wildest of lyric acrobatics, and Adès seems to consciously elevate her above the situation musically and psychologically.
But the stratospheric range can also grow wearisome, particularly given the many other high voices onstage. Of those, soprano Sally Matthews and countertenor Iestyn Davies inhabited the roles of Silvia and Francisco (sister and brother) with particularly convincing vocal drama. The mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter also gave a stand-out performance as Dr. Conde’s patient, Leonora, combining a rich timbre with an aristocratic air.
Credit goes to Cairns for recreating Buñuel’s dark take on the bourgeois world in which the characters are confined. The dinner table scene where a waiter ominously drops a tray of liver was swiftly paced but included vivid detail in gesture and expression. “Delicious! I had it in Capri…,” declares the conductor Alberto Roc (Thomas Allen) with just the right dose of pretension. The guests then move to a living room of gaudy 1970s furniture (sets by Hildegard Bechtler), where they will eventually destroy a cello for firewood to roast lamb. The iconic surrealist sculpture Bird in Space sits on the coffee table and will become the weapon with which Raul Yebenes (the charismatic Frédéric Antoun) hacks open a water pipe in the third act.
Other details imported from the film are not as convincing. A costumed actor who dances to a growling orchestra hardly evokes the shock of seeing a baby bear wander into the living room. And a video projection above the stage does not approach the intensity of the morbid, disembodied hand that crawls across the floor to the delirious Leonora. As police and a crowd of people surround the mansion, it also seemed a shame to cram them into the Haus für Mozart rather than take advantage of the wide stage in the Felsenreitschule (which, for a production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten four years ago, held not only 18 officers, but also live horses). If the audience’s standing ovation was any sign, The Exterminating Angel would have had no problem filling the extra seats.
Adès was at the center of a chamber concert the following evening at the Mozarteum featuring the Calder Quartet. The composer joined them for his Piano Quintet, creating floating, impressionistic atmospheres that are juxtaposed with the strings in Ivesian fashion. His grotesque harmonies and melodies underscore the sensation of seeing the music through a prism, as the musicologist Richard Taruskin noted early on, evoking surrealism. The Calder players were so homogeneous in texture and rhythm that they at one point resembled a glass harmonica.
They were just as outstanding in the string quartet Arcadiana, which features a macabre tango, a heartbreaking allusion to Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and a final movement, “Lethe” (the river of forgetfulness in Hades), in which the melodies lose their way and droop into nothing. Adès’ music won powerful context alongside Kurtàg’s Moments Musicaux, with its intricacies and wide-ranging references, and Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 (“Death and the Maiden”), in which the composer grapples with death and his lost youth.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.