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In Review > North America

The Exterminating Angel

The Metropolitan Opera

In Review Met Exterminating Angel hdl 118
A scene from Act II of The Exterminating Angel at the Met
© Johan Elbers

FIRST SEEN IN SALZBURG, then at Covent Garden, Tom Cairns’s production of the third Thomas Adès opera, The Exterminating Angel, came to the Met on October 26. Cairns, who also wrote the libretto in conjunction with Adès, took a Luis Buñuel screenplay with nearly twenty principal roles and somehow distilled it into a libretto notable for clarity and import. As a director, with the considerable and skillful contributions of set designer Hildegard Bechtler and lighting designer Jon Clark, Cairns kept the characters and their relationships remarkably clear on a large stage in a vast auditorium. Discreet use of the Met’s turntable kept the viewer’s focus on just the right place.

Performances from Salzburg and London were broadcast, but they did not prepare the listener for the overwhelming imagination of Adès’s orchestrations. The Bergian concision of the string lines, the unironic portentousness of the Wagner tubas and the limitless varieties of bell sonorities made a visceral impact heard live. Adès himself conducted. On the podium, Adès can sometimes have an ungainly, bouncy-castle appearance, but he is unfailingly clear in his gestures. The important music for the Ondes Martenot was balanced into the orchestral texture, and the conductor brought an almost suppressed, crackling excitement to a “witches’ trio” near the end of Act II. On the other hand, Adès encouraged the drums to drown out the pitched instruments in the first orchestral interlude (surely consciously), and he allowed the guitar music to be grossly over-amplified (surely not). But he certainly gave a persuasive shape to each act.

The excellent cast was largely made up of holdovers from the two previous runs, two of them making admirable Met debuts. Soprano Sophie Bevan, known heretofore only from recordings, gave confirmation that she has an unusually beautiful voice. Sally Matthews, another soprano, offered admirable legato in some very difficult music. New to the production for the Met run were Alice Coote, vivid and alive to the moment as ever in the role of a hypochondriac patient; Rod Gilfry—whose Met appearances have been too infrequent—in fine voice as the orchestra conductor Roc; and tenor David Portillo, who proved a convincing actor as the young fiancé Eduardo while singing beautifully in tune.

On opening night, the Met audience took the piece to its heart. One hopes that the score was the main reason; it may seem odd to point out that Adès has written a dense opera in which every note matters, but this is not common. Other factors that made it a good fit for the house were a number of operatic in-jokes and Bechtler’s sumptuous costumes and furnishings—certainly a plus for a part of the Met’s subscriber base, whether or not the music was to everyone’s taste. Cairns made clever use of the house’s famous chandeliers, which rose two extra times for the surreal repetitions of the arrival of the guests. 

But something else was in the air at the premiere. The same theme of the work—that people who steadfastly reject the idea of admitting that something is horribly wrong will eventually find out that this position is untenable—had been playing out in Washington in the days before.  —William R. Braun 

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