Last night I attended the 5th performance in the US premiere run of Thomas Ades' new opera, The Exterminating Angel which is a co-production with multiple houses including the Salzburg Festival where it debuted just over a year ago.
I came to the opera having read numerous articles, summaries and more, but unfortunately have never seen the 1962 Luis Bunuel film that it is based on. I think this may have been a hindrance, although I am aware of the socio-political background of the film, which I think is very important to understand the work itself. That said, I was indeed, lost at times trying to follow the plot and with a cast of 15 major soloists, it was also sometimes hard to keep track of who was who, although Ades was indeed brilliant in using not only voice types (such as a counter-tenor) but also specific singers he chose for each role.
Production Desinger-Tal Yarden
Leticia Maynar-Audrey Luna
Lucia de Nobile-Amanda Echalaz
Silvia de Avila-Sally Matthews
Leonora Palma-Alice Coote
Blanca Delgado-Christine Rice
Francisco de Avila-Iestyn Davies
Edmundo de Nobile-Joseph Kaiser
Raul Yebenes-Frederic Antoun
Colonel Alvaro Gomez-David Adam Moore
Alberto Roc-Rod Gilfry
Senor Russell-Kevin Burdette
Julio-Christian Van Horn
Doctor Carlos Conde-Sir John Tomlinson
Servants-Andrea Coleman,Marc Pressing
Padre Sanson-Jeff Mattsey
The work is brilliantly staged, and the moving interior arch perfectly isolates the characters as they become trapped in the home. Upon entering the theater there was a scrim with two people herding three live sheep around the set. Incessant chimes grew and grew as we got closer to the curtain time and then they seemed to be amplified all around us in the house, but never deafening. A trap door in the floor opened and servants emerged all in a tizzy about how they had to go now and leave the house before the hosts of the dinner party arrive. The guests arrive and introductions ensue with Ms. Luna, as the opera star, wielding off and unreal high note for her "Enchanted." The servants argue and then the chandeliers in the Met house proceed to lower and come back on, as if something had gone wrong with the entire opening scene. Now, if I had not known this was part of the opera, I would have assumes there was a technical difficulty, indeed the house had been opened quite late due to a prolonged matinee by a renter and the ushers rushed us to our seats so it could begin on time.
The introductions of the guests is repeated and the chandeliers rise and dim once again.
The hostess, Lucia, superbly acted and sung by Amanda Echalaz, is hysterical as she announces a menu change to serve the Maltese ragout first. Mr. Gilfry, in the role of the maestro Alberto declares, "Delicious, I had it in Capri!" What was funny is that I thought this line hysterical, being a traveller and foodie, but much of the audience did not seem to laugh with me at this, or numerous other lines I thought to be quite funny; although there were indeed many times throughout the entire work that laughing was clearly appropriate, even despite the difficult situation, which could be laughable, and even with the desperation the guests endured. As Julio, the butler, drops the entire casserole as Lucia screeches something about this being part of tonight's entertainment. While there were surtitles, making it easier to understand the text/libretto, I did not want to take my eyes off the stage lest I miss something; so some lines did pass me by.
The staff try to leave again and indeed eventually most of them do. As the arch rotated from the dining room to the living room where the guests have now retired, we see the young lovers, Eduardo and Beatriz, making out as if they have never met before. Blanca is playing the piano and someone asks for something by "Hades," pronounced like the composer's name, Ades, not like the hell place; I thought this was funny as well. The guests try to leave and Lucia offers them coats, but they do not....or can not. They all eventually go to sleep.
The first act ends here and I have to make some comments about the gorgeous period mod furniture and spectacular period costumes, especially those for the women, not to mention their bouffant hairdos! It looked like the films we have seen recently of the opening of the Met 50+ years ago!
The music is harder to describe, definitely not atonal, but not always lyrical, quite complex to me and while not a musician, I felt quite hard to sing I am sure. The use of the rare Ondes Martenot was quite effective with its eerie creepy wobble.
During a percussion heavy interlude, a ghostlike light moves across the black curtain which rises to reveal the guests waking, the women gathered at a large door in a huge wall that had been to the left of the set for Act I (it also housed the coat closet). Eventually we figured this was a bathroom door, but it was not all too clear. As the elderly Senor Russell seems to be dying, Ms. Rice's Blanca sings an extended "Over the sea..." but as she sings Leticia slams the piano shut on her hands; the violence, it seems, has started, Dr. Conde declares they suffer from abulia and have lost their will to act. Julio helps Senor Russell up for his dying lines, "I'm so happy U will not see the extermination." There is a trio for three women, "When I lifted the lid, I saw a huge precipice, giving Ms. Luna some awesomely high notes that I thought could not even be written, let alone sung. The body is then carried off through that "bathroom door" as loud funerary chimes ring. The young lovers sneak off as a blackout ends the act.
After a 35 minute break, an announcement is made that there were some technical difficulties. Oddly enough, this happened exactly a year ago when I attended the ill-fated William Tell with the white dust in the pit. Indeed last night's ticket was my replacement from the Met for that very incident! Eerie premonitions.
When we started the set is a shambles with the arch now in the center separated the home on the right from an assembling crowd outside on the left; the music oozes with Spanish flair, which it never seemed to before...perhaps the composer wanted to instill this was indeed 1960's Spain. Many of the performers, now all extremely disheveled, are jerking their bodies quirkily and the two siblings embrace in heavy kissing. A water pipe is broken open with a fountain coming up from the stage so they can drink and someone utters "Death is preferable to this indignation." A large projection at the rear of a bug infestation grows until it is all black.
A projection of a hand goes up and across the arch as the brilliant Ms. Coote's Leonora intones "I think they watch us..." as she follows the hand and eventually stabs Blanca's hand thinking it is the hand that eludes her.
A ghostly mist comes across the scrim as a small cube emerges from the closet at the left and the two lovers are seen naked(body suits) making love and a pact to die together.
The next scene has Maestro Roc flying across the stage landing on one of the women. Was it Leonora? This is where the confusion totally got me lost and then the three sheep (not real ones) appear at the rear, followed by projection of a gigantic bear and the curtain fell.
The curtain rises with the crowd again outside at the left and Silvia's little son Yoli is encouraged by them to enter the house; he cannot.
A large fire is at the center of the living room where the guests are cooling the meat and eating huge chunks of it. I loved the line for Mr. Davies, that he preferred his "a point." They were seemingly bloodied by the rare meat.
As Ms. Coote eerily sings of Leonora's premonition before the opera and the "dinner party" she is disrupted by Mr. Davies high counter-tenor as he finds the young lovers dead in the closet.
Silvia in a trace-like state cradles a sheep's head singing a lullaby-like tune thinking it is her son, Yoli.
A super appears at the rear in a large bear suit and I have to admit, I was lost again as to the meaning of this.
The guests begin to gang up on their host, also beautifully sung and acted by Mr. Kaiser, and he offers himself as a sacrifice. Ms. Luna's Leticia interrupts, "How long have we been here?..." and I have to admit, while to us it seemed only a couple of days perhaps, she intones at one point, "a month?" This is serious. She urges them to stay as they are in the same positions as when they arrives, even with Blanca at the now broken to pieces piano (it was used for firewood to cook the meat). The opening sequence is resung by all and they somehow gather their clothing and coats and move through the arch to the crowd on the left. The servants who had escaped when the opera began are also with the crowd as the chimes from the start begin to crescendo as the chorus hums an a capella-like chant. The Met chandeliers begin to lower and light up very slowly. They are all crying and embracing.
SPOILER ALERT: skip this if you don't want to know the ending!
A huge commotion occurs as the guests finally get into the crowd and the arch begins to rotate again to parallel the stage edge as the entire crowd is between the arch and stage lip. The arch slowly moves forward as the crowd is forced back behind the arch, as the last few are now trapped, there is a huge flash of light and a blackout.
I would have to assume this meant that everyone is indeed trapped in this perhaps unsolvable situation, not just these upper crusty dinner guests?? Who knows?
What I do know is that this was a terrific coup for the brilliant singing actors (and yes, the acting was beyond superb from everyone in the entire cast) who were indeed so convincing in telling us their story; even if we were a bit confused. The music is compelling and definitely not am imposition on the ear, as some new works can truly be.
I wish I could see the movie and indeed the opera again to gain a better understanding of both. It is truly worth the journey.
ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
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