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The Exterminating Angel

Salzburg Festival

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Tom Cairns's world-premiere production of Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus
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Von Otter as Leonora, Tomlinson as the Doctor, Rice as Blanca, Echalaz as Lucía and David Adam Moore's Colonel
© Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

BRITISH COMPOSER THOMAS ADÈS likes confined spaces. His first opera, Powder Her Face (1995) takes place in a hotel suite, where the disgraced Duchess of Argyll recounts her scandalous life. The Tempest (2004), his acclaimed version of Shakespeare’s final work, unfurls on Prospero’s enchanted island. Adès’s new opera, adapted from the 1962 Luis Buñuel film The Exterminating Angel, takes place at a dinner party in a nobleman’s villa. This was the first world premiere at Salzburg since 2014’s Charlotte Salomon by Marc-André Dalbavie, which was a robust piece of Musiktheater staged inside the Felsenreitschule, the seventeenth-century riding school hewn into the Mönchsberg cliffs. By contrast, The Exterminating Angel beat its suffocating wings inside the modest dimensions of the Haus für Mozart, a location much better suited to its clammy atmosphere.  It is a spectacular opera (seen Aug. 8).

In Buñuel’s film, a group of genteel guests at a lavish dinner party at a nobleman’s villa, find themselves unable—or unwilling—to leave the drawing room at the end of the evening. In violation of all proper manners and breeding, the guests begin to undress and hunker down for the evening. Days, maybe even weeks, go by and the thin veneer of civilization breaks down inside the drawing room that nobody seems able to enter or exit. It is one of cinema’s great surrealistic coups, a witty, savage head-scratcher whose paradoxical plot seems to demand some political or metaphysical explanation. Over half a century later, it remains fundamentally mysterious. And I imagine that it is precisely this ambiguity that drew Adès to this particular source material.   

The Adès score is consistently absorbing in its vast array of musical patterns and motifs, assembled in a dizzying tapestry. The individual themes and figures often seem like outgrowths of the incantatory dialogue—the natural cadences of the characters’ comical, repetitive or plain-nonsense speech thrown into the echo chamber of Adès’ score. The orchestra is massive and the orchestrations are thick, alternatively gnashing, shrieking or shimmering. But there is also variety, with a soft harp for a lovers’ discourse and unexpectedly lyrical reprieves. There are sudden bursts of Viennese waltzes and an expected guitar solo, but the work never feels like pastiche. With the composer at the podium, the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien attacked this virtuosic, gripping music, with its bold splashes of color, with an unerring sense of drama. It seemed a testament to Adès brilliance that so many top-notch singers had signed on for the large ensemble cast; there are twenty-two principal characters. Thomas Allen, Anne Sofie von Otter, Charles Workman, Amanda Echalaz and John Tomlinson were just a few of the finest artists at work on stage.  

The English-language libretto, by Adès and Tom Cairns—who also directed the handsome production, with a proscenium-like threshold that may contain a sly reference to the moneyed festival audience—hews closely to Buñuel’s screenplay. Sometimes, the dialogue has the elegant simplicity of a nursery rhyme, as when Francisco, played by countertenor Iestyn Davies, shrieks indignantly, “These spoons are teaspoons!” The libretto preserves the absurd comedy of the film, from the savaging of the social codes and rituals of the ruling class to the unexpected surreal touches, including a dismembered hand scurrying across the stage, chicken legs casually produced from handbags and a grim epidemic of … going bald! 

Adès’ score references the little music that is heard in the film by slyly interpolating his own piano variations on a Judaeo-Spanish song that is (falsely) advertised as a sonata by Paradisi (to make things even more mischievous, the musical excerpt is followed by a request for “something by Adès”). The Te Deum in the film’s last scene is here substituted by a requiem sung by the chorus amid clattering bells that builds to paroxysm—an infernal chaconne that denies us the redemption that seemed within reach moments earlier. In the single greatest departure from the film, Adès has the soprano Leticia (Audrey Luna, who sang Ariel in The Tempest at the Met), sing a full-fledged aria that breaks the spell keeping them in the drawing room. The text is an adaptation of the medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi’s passionate prayer for Zion: “I’d leave great Spain / For one glimpse of your dust,” Luna sings, as her stratospheric voice is caressed by buoyant music. It’s a bizarre and ultimately rapturous moment where the great Jewish bard of the Reconquista is put into dialogue with Spain’s greatest filmmaker, who spent most of his career in exile for opposing Franco’s dictatorship. Perhaps Adès means to symbolic suggest exile and diaspora as a bittersweet antidote to the mechanisms that confine us, both in our social roles and private lives. Remember that Prospero, exiled on his island, becomes the all-powerful sorcerer of his domain. The Tempest took eight years to cross the Atlantic. This time around, the wait will be much shorter: The Exterminating Angel is coming to the Met in the fall of 2017.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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