Thomas Adès’ Dark, Disturbing and Brilliant The Exterminating Angel at the Met

United StatesUnited States Adès, The Exterminating Angel Cast, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Thomas Adès (Conductor), Broadcast live to the Dundonald Omniplex, Belfast, from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 18.11.2017. (RB)

The Exterminating Angel (c) The Metropolitan Opera


Leticia Laymar – Audrey Luna
Lucía di Nobile – Amanda Echalaz
Silvia de Ávila – Sally Matthews
Beatriz – Sophie Bevan
Leonora Palma – Alice Coote
Blanca Delgado – Christine Rice
Francisco de Ávila – Iestyn Davies
Edmundo de Nobile – Joseph Kaiser
Raúl Yebenes – Frédéric Antoun
Eduardo – David Portillo
Colonel Álvaro Gómez – David Adam Moore
Alberto Roc – Rod Gilfry
Señor Russell – Kevin Burdette
Julio – Christian van Horn
Doctor Carlos Conde – Sir John Tomlinson


Production – Tom Cairns
Projection Designer – Tal Yarden
Set and Costume Designer – Hildegard Bechtler
Choreographer – Amir Hosseinpour
Lighting Designer – Jon Clark

Live in HD Host – Susan Graham

The source material for what is now Thomas Adès’ third opera was Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film, The Exterminating Angel. In the film a group of aristocratic party guests meet to dine at the mansion of Edmundo Nobile and his wife, Lucía. At the end of the evening they find for some inexplicable reason that they are unable to leave the room. The atmosphere gradually becomes more claustrophobic and one of the guests who is ill subsequently dies.  A crowd gathers outside the mansion but they find they are unable to enter. The guests in the mansion gradually lose access to running water and basic sanitation and they become increasingly feral. Eduardo and Beatriz lock themselves in a closet and take their own lives while the Ávila siblings engage in recreational drug taking and an incestuous relationship. Three sheep appear out of nowhere and the guests kill and cook them. The tension mounts and the guests threaten to kill their host. Leticia notices that everyone is in the same position as when their plight began and the guests are finally able to leave the room. The film ends with riots on the streets which are brutally suppressed by the military. Buñuel offered no explanation for his film, but it has been interpreted as an allegory for the ruling class in Franco’s Spain who become increasingly trapped and removed from the outside world which gradually reveals their worst instincts.

Tom Cairns adapted the libretto for the opera from Buñuel’s original screenplay. Cairns was also the director for this production and he uses a fairly spare set consisting of a lavishly set table and couches. At various points in the action the stage revolves away from the principal cast to reveal the outside world. All fifteen principal singers were on stage for most of the time and there was a feeling of intense claustrophobia. There was an enormous build up of tension as we witnessed the gradual social disintegration of the group. There were some striking surreal images at the start of the third act including indefinable pictures projected on to a screen, a character floating through the dark like a vampire threatening to molest one of the female characters and a severed hand. The bodies of the dead sheep were cooked over a fire and eaten and towards the end of the opera Sally Matthew’s Lucía was seen cradling the head of a dead sheep. The opera became increasingly dark and disturbing and the tension in the final crowd scene was almost unbearable.

Buñuel’s film is a terrifying parable of what happens when things move to the political extremes and the political class lose touch with the people. In our time there has been a rise of the extreme right across Europe, there are nationalist movements which are threatening the break up the established political order (Brexit in the UK and Catalonia in Spain) while the current U.S. President appears at loggerheads with his Congress and has a way of governing that is unlike anything we have seen before. Political commentators have pointed out that many of these events have come about a result of politicians not listening to the concerns of ordinary people. There is a curious paralysis which surrounds many of these political events and a rise in the use of incendiary language in the Press and on social media. Adès is perhaps reminding us through Buñuel’s film of the dangers which can ensue when political institutions fail and there is a move to the extremes.

Adès’ music is an extraordinary synthesis of many different styles and during the course of the evening we heard allusions to the Viennese waltz, the Baroque suite, and a heady Romantic love duet all refracted through the composer’s unique modernist lens. He used interesting instrumental combinations throughout and introduced the first act with bell chimes, the second with Spanish rhythms on the drums and the third with miniature violins. The eerie sound of the ondes Martenot could be heard throughout and these sounds together with that of the bells gave the piece a hallucinatory feel. Adès was highly experimental in his use of pitch writing stratospherically high soprano roles for Audrey Luna and Sally Matthews while using a contraforte to plumb the Stygian depths. Motivic themes introduced and then ran through particular scenes and much of the writing was rhythmically highly intricate. There was also some highly inventive piano writing in the second act where Adès took a Sephardic Jewish theme and made it sound like a movement from a neo-Baroque suite.

Adès writes extremely well for the voice and during the first two acts the cast worked well as an ensemble. Audrey Luna did a brilliant job with the exceptionally high vocal writing: Susan Graham mentioned during the interval that she had to hit the highest note in the Met’s history! There was something about her entries which created an undercurrent of hysteria which somehow affected the other guests. Sir John Tomlinson’s Doctor Conde seemed to provide a counterbalance to this urging the guest towards rationality and working to ease tensions. Iestyn Davies characterised the peevish Francisco well at one point bursting into a tantrum about coffee spoons.

The big set piece numbers came in Act III and again the cast did a marvellous job introducing this new music to the world. Sophie Bevan and David Portillo sang a rapturous liebestod while standing naked in the closet. They created rich, sumptuous vocal textures which seemed to transcend the increasingly squalid predicament of the doomed couple. Alice Coote sang a highly poetic aria in which she goes into a hallucinatory trance and imagines a severed hand. Coote brought enormous depth and richness of tone to the music. One of the most disturbing scenes in the opera was where Sally Matthews’s Sivlia sang an eerie lullaby to an imaginary infant while cradling the head of a dead sheep.

This was a dark, disturbing and brilliant new work from Thomas Adès – if you get an opportunity I would highly recommend that you go and see it.

Robert Beattie       

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