By David Shengold
NEW YORK — Thomas Adès won vociferous cheers from an industry-heavy Metropolitan Opera crowd Oct. 26 as he led the North American premiere of his powerful if ultimately inscrutable three-act opera The Exterminating Angel. The work has a libretto by Tom Cairns (who also served as stage director) in collaboration with the composer; their source is the screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza of the former’s 1962 film El ángel exterminador.
Like that masterful black-and-white film, the Adès and Cairns work never allows one to understand the exact meaning of the allegorical material being developed. The opera – in this same staging – was first heard at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 and then performed last April at the Royal Opera Covent Garden. The work’s fourth co-commissioning entity was the Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen, where it arrives in March.
Buñuel’s film dates from his exile in Mexico, and takes the world of Mexico’s “1 percenters” as its milieu: the mansion of the wealthy De Nobiles, Edmundo and Lucia, after an operatic performance (notably, of Lucia) that they and their dinner guests have experienced as patrons or as performers. To put it mildly, the entertainment goes awry: Servants desert, much of the food gets waylaid, the trained lambs and bear scheduled to perform are relegated to the garden (though the highly allegory-inviting lambs eventually meet a brutal end of which we witness the atavistic outcome).
The hosts and guests – and, eventually, the sole staff member still present, the butler Julio – prove unable to cross the threshold of the salon where they’re sequestered. As in Jimmy López’s Bel Canto, the room of confinement contains a piano and a prima donna, and crises arise of romance, separation from children, and deprivation from medication. But here there’s little room for Bel Canto’s (doomed) solidarity through music: The needs and responses turn primitive very quickly.
The new opera is Adès’ third major stage work. The luridly scandalous – if in the right staging, also moving – chamber opera Powder Her Face has been performed by many American companies. Santa Fe produced the American premiere of The Tempest under Alan Gilbert’s baton in 2006; the Met followed, with the composer himself conducting, in 2012.
Unlike Powder Her Face, which has already seen many different stagings and leading interpreters, I am not sure that The Exterminating Angel is suited for, or even intended as, an extension of the basic operatic repertory. Its large cast and extraordinary musical and theatrical demands pretty much guarantee that it be a festival offering or (as here) a high-profile novelty. There is something of the hip, high-end coffee-table book to the whole endeavor: not a vital experience, but one capable of genuine fascination even as it at least promises a high cultural cachet. Still, I’d strongly recommend this virtuosic, excitingly staged ensemble effort, which will be transmitted via the Met’s worldwide HD hookup on Nov. 18.
As a score, The Tempest contained much of interest but foundered on the doggerel libretto with which Meredith Oakes supplanted Shakespeare’s language. The Exterminating Angel has an even more pointedly brilliant and virtuosic score. Bells (virtually the only musical element in Buñuel’s film), often thunderous percussion, and the eerie ondes Martenot – evocatively played by Cynthia Millar – predominate, but the variation in tone and scale Adès provides makes for a remarkable ride.
The only less than compelling effect was the somewhat cheesy ethnic dance-rhythm music for the crowd gathered outside. That’s also the weakest point in Cairns’ generally adroit staging, with the similarly “opened out” final scene a close second. I imagine I’m not the only person left in doubt as to what the final scene portended. In the film, the freed guests go to a church for a redemptive Mass and find themselves again mysteriously trapped.
Hildegard Bechtler’s modernist sets and stunning costumes evoke the place and era perfectly. Jon Clark’s keen lighting makes cleverly pointed use of the Met’s fantastic Austrian chandeliers, reminding us that we, too, are creatures of privilege sufficient to be attending an opera.
Three of the cast performed in the Met’s Tempest as well. Audrey Luna – Ariel in the earlier work – here tackles the soprano Leticia. Unlike the diva in Bel Canto, the part has no “performed” or “rehearsed” musical content, but everything she “says” sits way up near or above the top of the staff, so that her solo utterances have a whiff of having ingested helium, and she frequently tops the skillfully wrought ensembles. To call Luna’s virtuosity remarkable is an understatement; Adès scarcely could have crafted the part without her services.
Kevin Burdette and Iestyn Davies played two of The Tempest’s lowlifes; here, the bass-baritone soon expires as Señor Russell and the countertenor has a field day as the incredibly high-strung, epicene and sister-fixated Francisco, eventually gay-baited by the macho explorer Raúl.
Raúl’s music got brilliant utterance by debuting Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun, sounding – with his clarity and pliancy of timbre and his dynamically sensitive phrasing – like a major addition to the house’s French wing. Equally sonorous and impressive was lyric tenor David Portillo, playing Eduardo, one of the young lovers whom the story isolates in duets and confined spaces. Portillo’s beautiful legato singing was only sometimes echoed by debutante Sophie Bevan (Beatriz), shining in non-pressured moments but apt to splay up top.
The same description might be applied to her fellow British soprano and debutante Sally Matthews as the aristocratic Silvia, whom Adès’ score subjects to a punishingly high tessitura. The worst victim of Adès’ predilection for hammering away at the upper break was the Lucia, Amanda Echalaz – commanding onstage and with a strong middle voice, but weak in her lower range and downright unpleasant and screamy in the highest register. Playing her husband, Joseph Kaiser managed to sound healthy and musical in wide-ranging writing.
In the role of the pianist Blanca Delgado was Christine Rice, a mezzo-soprano much lionized by her British compatriots for reasons that elude me. Her sound lacked distinction. That said, Rice handled with artistry Blanca’s quiet Act II musings, the transparent orchestration of which evoked Britten. As the worldly conductor Alberto Roc (Blanca’s husband), that consummate singing actor Rod Gilfry turned in a fully etched portrait, his baritone in steady, firm shape.
John Tomlinson, at age 71, wielded his huge, characterful if not always steady bass as Dr. Condé. Alice Coote lavished expressive timbre and phrasing on Leonora, the doctor’s elderly patient and admirer. Solidly gifted baritone David Adam Moore made a convincing company debut as a dashing “old school” colonel. Christian Van Horn’s voice sounded good as Julio but it was unclear why he attempted a Latin accent when no one else did. Bass Paul Corona (as Pablo, the straying cook) stood out for excellent diction. Another bright spot among the small roles was the ever-welcome soprano Mary Dunleavy, as the maid Meni (who also flees). Dunleavy created a vivid character in a few brief strokes.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.