BWW Review: EXTERMINATING ANGEL - Up Close and Personal with the Indiscreet Charms of the Upper Class at the Met
"It's déjà vu all over again" goes the quip attributed to the NY Yankees pitcher Yogi Berra. But that's the feeling I had with Thomas Ades's THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, with libretto based on the Luis Bunuel film, 'El ángel exterminador,' by Tom Cairns and the composer. (Cairns also directed.)
Not that the opera looks or sounds like anything else recently produced on the Met's stage, except perhaps for Ades's own TEMPEST and its music for soprano Audrey Luna (the opera diva, Leticia) that sounds like an all-points-bulletin to stray dogs everywhere. (She did a swell job, though.) Rather, it's because it seems like the operatic arm of France's Nouvelle Vague, the New Wave, translating the obsessions of the creators into a staged vision--a touch of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, a pinch of Agnes Varda, and a taste of Bunuel's own DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (usually considered a surrealist, he's certainly at home with those French cineastes).
The opera had its world premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 and was at Covent Garden in London earlier this year, so the production has had a chance to dot its I's and cross its T's. Ades was on the podium in a stellar performance from the Met orchestra and a cast that couldn't be bettered in putting across the sometimes-complexly modern, sometimes-pastiche (but rarely dull) score. Who knows when the Met will mount it again, so it's worth taking a look and listen--either live at the Met or 'Live in HD' from the Met in cinemas around the world--just to hear what the operati have proclaimed the don't-miss work of the decade.
The three-act piece (one intermission, after Act II), with sets and costumes by Hildegard Bechter that brilliantly capture the '60s, heightened by Jon Clark's lighting, takes place at the home of a wealthy couple (the glamorous soprano Amanda Echalaz and the imposing tenor Joseph Kaiser). They've spent a night at the opera--the Met's own Austrian chandeliers become a sight gag in this iteration of the production--and invited all the right people home for a late dinner.
The servants set up for the arrival of the guests but then run for the hills--except for the butler Julio (the excellent bass-baritone Christian Van Horn) who is expected to serve the main course. They seem to know that something bad is about to happen, though they don't know exactly what, while the hosts and guests remain clueless.
Indeed, the assembled troops seem to be have no idea that they are about to have what may be the longest dinner party in history because they are too busy thinking about their own petty problems to think about anything odd around them. The hosts want desperately for the guests to part pretty early in the game--particularly without their serving staff to help--but no such luck ensues.
The night passes, the morning comes and the guests finally seem to be on their way out, but no one can pass outside the portals, though there is no actual physical barrier keeping them inside. They stay captive for most of the opera, deteriorating in appearance and disposition. But their trials are far from over.
Ades had lots of musical ideas to put across, sometimes using unusual instruments--the ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument), tiny violins, foreboding drums--along with the singers. And he found at least something interesting for all the many characters--no small achievement with such a large cast--though he seemed at his best when he followed some operatic conventions to turn on their ears. For example, there was a wonderful duet for the young lovers Beatriz (the supple-voiced soprano, Sophie Bevan) and Eduardo (the gleaming tenor David Portillo) and a commanding aria for the fatally ill Leonora (a scintillating number for mezzo Alice Coote and solo guitar, Michael Kudirka), where Tal Yarden's projections completed this tour de force.
There was an exciting piano solo--his own "Blanca Variations"--for the wonderful soprano Christine Rice as concert-pianist Blanca and Ades's forceful music for bass John Tomlinson helped give heft to his performance as Doctor Conde. The lovely soprano Sally Matthews as Silvia, had a striking, fragmented lullaby to her son with whom she is reunited before the story takes another turn for the worse.
Baritone Rod Gilfry (as Blanca's husband, conductor Alberto Roc) is always an intriguing performer but Ades, didn't find enough for him to do; on the other hand, countertenor Iestyn Davies as Silvia's brother/lover/brother/lover, Francisco, had too much for such an unpleasant, petty fellow. (His demanding a coffee spoon instead of a teaspoon sums it up pretty well.) Still, the characters didn't feel like an ensemble to me until the last act, which was, perhaps, the point: all these people in their own little worlds.
What I find most puzzling is the composer's penchant for writing for women in a range that is the most strenuous for the performer while communicating the least--particularly disturbing in the long aria by soprano Luna that amounted to a kind of denouement before the actual denouement of the opera. But he didn't confine this writing to a single role and it grew wearying, even though the singers somehow managed to perform them gracefully, though I'm not sure that 'graceful' was something that Ades had in mind.
The film was Bunuel's condemnation of the do-nothing upper class in Spain during the Franco years and though the opera was slated by the Met-via-Salzburg long in advance, it seemed unmistakenly timely in this wretched era of the laissez-Trump. My word, there's even a bear in the cast: Is he Russian?
Additional performances of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL will take place on November 3, 7, 10, 14, 18 matinee, and 21. Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission, and curtain times vary; complete schedule here.
Saturday, November 18 matinee performance will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met's "Live in HD" series, which is now seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 73 countries around the world.
Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.
Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.