At first glance, the feasibility of transforming surrealist director Luis Buñuel’s film El Ángel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) into a large-scale ensemble opera seems unlikely. Filmed in Mexico City in 1962, Buñuel’s screen classic—in which an upper-class dinner party devolves into madness and chaos as the guests find themselves inexplicably unable to leave—blends political satire, eccentric humor, and the logic of nightmares into a genre-defying enigma. Yet despite their unusual inspiration, Adès and Tom Cairns, who adapted the libretto together with the composer and who also directs this premiere production, have created an opera that feels like an inevitable and natural development of the material—and delivered one of the most exciting new works in recent seasons.
The Met’s production features an outstanding ensemble cast, including Audrey Luna in the stratospheric coloratura role of an opera prima donna, soprano Amanda Echalaz, and tenor Joseph Kaiser as the party’s hosts, and bass Sir John Tomlinson as a doctor who tries to maintain some level of order, with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, countertenor Iestyn Davies, and bass Christian Van Horn among the other guests. The composer himself returns to the Met to conduct.
The Exterminating Angel’s world premiere last summer at the Salzburg Festival was greeted by a standing ovation and rapturous reviews. The Financial Times judged the score “more than good. It is brilliant. This is utterly assured writing, clever, effective, dazzling, complex yet awfully easy to listen to.” The response was no less enthusiastic when the opera made its way to London’s Covent Garden in April. The work so effectively immerses the audience in Buñuel’s inescapable dinner party, as the Guardian noted in its review, “that one half expects to encounter some kind of force field at the Covent Garden doors.”
Adès’s adaptation of Buñuel marks the composer’s third major operatic success in as many attempts. First, in 1995, when he was just 24, the composer scored a sensation with his debut opera, Powder Her Face. Inspired by a sex scandal from the 1960s involving the downfall of an aristocratic woman, this chamber opera revealed Adès’s remarkable talent as a musical dramatist.
When the youthful composer’s next opera was ready to be unveiled, the stakes were high—all the more so considering that Adès had abandoned an earlier idea for another opera based on recent history in favor of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. At its 2004 premiere in London, the resulting opera won over critics and the public alike and was quickly recognized as a fresh work, idiomatically conceived for the operatic medium, that illuminates the familiar from new and valuable perspectives. In the fall of 2012, The Tempest became a highlight of the Met’s season in a new production directed by Robert Lepage.
For his third opera, Adès once again shifted his attention to something completely different. The Exterminating Angel revolves around the plight of a group of mostly self-involved upper-class characters, who have been invited to a lavish, late-night dinner party hosted by the cultivated Edmundo de Nobile and his wife, Lucia. Most of the servants inexplicably get spooked at the work’s beginning and flee the mansion before the party gets underway.
For no apparent reason, the guests find themselves unable to leave the party, becoming trapped—psychologically, as if by some invisible force—in the increasingly claustrophobic salon. Social conventions rapidly dissolve as the implications of this imprisonment take hold. The characters are driven to extremes (think Lord of the Flies meets Waiting for Godot): A pair of young lovers engages in a suicide pact, an old man wastes away and dies, and the most aggressive guests threaten to murder their host in rage. “This very grand and elaborate, bourgeois group of people,” observes director Cairns, “is reduced to shredded clothes, completely destroyed by the experience.”
For his musical conception, Adès draws on a historically far-reaching spectrum of stylistic allusions—the Viennese waltz, Baroque decorum, densely clotted modernist harmonies—but transcends facile eclecticism. The kaleidoscopically shifting soundscape is a character in its own right, heightening the drama onstage and illuminating our impression of gathering doom.
The film’s large cast of privileged guests, servants, and various external crowds—along with a flock of sheep and a bear—naturally had to be compressed. But even trimmed down to 15 principal roles (along with supernumeraries and chorus), the opera posed extraordinary challenges for both composer and director, given the scenario’s basic premise that these characters remain onstage throughout. Adès cleverly uses contrasts of vocal types to emphasize “strongly differentiated characters, so you can tell one person from the other,” he explains. Particular figures come into musical focus from one scene to the next, “like a merry-go-round” where different groups of horses stick out as the carousel continues to turn.
Visually, the challenge is to imply something that is “hugely, existentially bigger” than any specific subject, says Cairns, even though “the actual situation is domestic: to contain that and not allow it to get lost on such a vast stage area.” Dominating Hildegard Bechtler’s set is an immense, flexible wooden door frame: an imposing threshold and sculpture that in one sense suggests “elements of the ‘exterminating angel’ itself—the unknown.” A gigantic projection screen used for both lighting and images can shift the mood from the everyday to the unnervingly surreal.
Adès says he hopes Met audiences “will feel that they’ve been through something in the theater that is enjoyable … and puts them somewhere completely new, maybe which they didn’t expect. I hope it’s a thrill for them, as it has been for me.”
The Exterminating Angel plays the Met through November 21. For tickets and information, click here.