Met Streams Exterminating Angel

By Lynne Gray, PhD

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Friday, June 5

Thomas Adès’s  The Exterminating Angel ~ 2 Hrs & 22 Mins

Conducted by Thomas Adès, starring Audrey Luna, Amanda Echalaz, Sally Matthews, Sophie Bevan,  Alice Coote, Christine Rice, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Frédéric Antoun, David Portillo, David Adam Moore, Rod Gilfry, Kevin Burdette, Christian Van Horn, John Tomlinson. Transmitted live on November 18, 2017.

Based on Luis Buñuel’s surrealist 1962 film about an invisible force that prevents the attendees of a fancy dinner party from leaving, Thomas Adès’s modern opera is a disturbing exploration of forced isolation and confinement that just might be particularly relevant these days. Adès is a contemporary British composer (b. 1971) who strives to create unique “sound environments” for his audiences, and in this case incorporates a number of unusual instruments into the orchestra while asking for increasingly acrobatic vocal feats from the singers to match the escalating confusion and desperation of their characters as their captivity stretches on – seemingly endlessly.

After the very successful Met premiere of Adès’s “The Tempest” in 2012 (it was streamed just a couple weeks ago on May 12), the composer returned to the Met in 2017 with another new work, this time inspired by “El Ángel Exterminador.” As the opera opens, a group of elegant socialites gather for a lavish dinner party celebrating the opera singer, Leticia Maynar (sung by soprano Audrey Luna – we saw her as Ariel in The Tempest – and here she takes on another stratospheric coloratura role as the opera prima donna). The rest of the large and outstanding ensemble cast (15 principal singers; no “stars”) includes Alice Coote as Leonora Palma (we saw her in the trouser role of Idamante in Idomeneo), Joseph Kaiser as Edmundo de Nobile, the party’s host, and Amanda Echalaz as his wife, Lucia, Rod Gilfry as Alberto Roc, countertenor Iestyn Davies (he was Terry in Marnie at the end of April) as Francisco de Avila, John Tomlinson as Doctor Carlos Conde, Christian Van Horn as Julio, the butler, and Kevin Burdette as Señor Russell.

Tom Cairns, who also wrote the libretto, directs this challenging production – all the characters must remain on the stage throughout the entire opera. A towering wooden archway (on a revolving platform) dominates the stage and “traps” the characters inside. The composer Adès himself takes the podium to conduct his increasingly frenzied score, which features a host of unconventional instruments, including the eerie electronic ondes Martenot (an early electronic musical instrument, played with a keyboard or by moving a ring along a wire, creating “wavering” sounds).

There is no “story” per se; it’s much more like eavesdropping on a series of increasingly dysfunctional interactions among the 15 trapped individuals as they face an incomprehensible situation. Basically, the party begins to move in a bizarre direction almost immediately. As the guests are arriving, the household help inexplicably begins to run away – very quickly they have all run, leaving only the butler, Julio to attend to the guests. At dinner, Nobile, the host, toasts Leticia, and when his wife, Lucía announces the first course, the waiter trips and spills it spectacularly all over the floor. As the mishaps mount, Lucía decides to postpone her other dinner “entertainments,” and a performing bear and a number of lambs are removed to the garden. When it is time to leave for the night, the guests seem to become lethargic and distracted. They head towards the door, but always turn and wander back. Eventually, they all find places on couches, chairs, the floor – or in the case of young engaged couple, a small closet – and fall asleep.

Waking in the morning, an older guest is dying. Julio is supposed to prepare breakfast but reports that no supplies have arrived at the house. When Lucía tries to take some of the ladies to her bedroom to freshen up, they do not make it past the threshold of the dining room. Blanca is worried about her children, but even she and her husband are unable to find the will to leave. As the second evening approaches, the group’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and savage (think of an adult Lord of the Flies). They fight among themselves, break pipes to get water, build a fire with the furniture and kill and cook the sheep who have wandered in from the garden!

By the third act, police have surrounded the mansion and a crowd has gathered, but no one can get in – not even the young son of one of the guests. Inside, there are fights, stabbings, deaths, and suicides. Finally the idea takes shape among those remaining that a sacrifice will be necessary to secure their release. They decide they must kill their host, Edmundo Nobile, but just before they do Leticia interrupts them. She realizes that, at that moment, each of them is in exactly the same place in the room as they were when their ordeal began. As they slowly repeat their actions from the first night – with one key change – they are able to approach the threshold and finally to cross it. What happens on the other side, however, when they meet the assembled crowd leaves us with as many unanswered questions as we had from the time we started.

Photo Credits

1.             David Adam Moore as Col. Álvaro Gómez, Christian Van Horn as Julio, Rod Gilfry as Alberto Roc, Christine Rice as Blanca Delgado, Audrey Luna as Leticia Maynar, and Sir John Tomlinson as Dr. Carlos Conde in Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

2. – 6.              Scenes from Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel” at the Met 2017. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

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