25 Apr 2017

The Exterminating Angel: compulsive repetitions and re-enactments

Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”

The Exterminating Angel - a co-production with the Salzburg Festival, The Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Danish Opera - was premiered to great acclaim at the 2016 Salzburg Festival, and most of the original stellar ensemble cast reprise their roles here at Covent Garden. The libretto is the result of a long collaboration between Adès and director Tom Cairns (according to the latter, work on the text started in 2009), and is based upon Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film El ángel exterminador, in which the Mexican surrealist lampoons a bunch of egocentric aristocrats who, gathering for a lavish post-opera dinner party, find themselves afflicted by a surreal curse. Despite the open door, they are inexplicably unable to leave the elegant dining room. Even as their conditions deteriorate, and hunger and desperation bring degradation, they cannot will themselves to cross the threshold. Outside, the servants - who, blessed with a sixth sense that scented the imminent danger, fled the mansion before the guests arrived - are disinclined to rescue their social betters.

Buñuel injects the carnivalesque with a dose of Sartre and a dash of Beckett. The inexact but excessive repetitions of his film reveal the solipsism and arrogance of these vain bourgeoisie who accuse the servants of being like rats deserting a ship, blaming them for their predicament rather than acknowledging their own lack of will. The tone is abstract and absurd, and the focus is on the ensemble rather than on individual protagonists, as Buñuel exposes the sterility of the ritual-like behaviour that structures daily life and social interaction.

Adès replaces Buñuel’s cinematic wit with musical parody and ingenuity, but the musical structures, macro and micro, confirm the film’s exposure of mankind’s obligation to repeat, even while the opportunity for individual musical expression offers emotional ‘close-ups’. The clamour of church bells which accompanies the audience’s arrival in the auditorium and heralds the exterminating angel is heard again at the opera’s close. The arrival of the guests is not only staged twice - as in the film - but is also built upon a passacaglia form, as if the aristocrats are stuck on a spiralling stairway, plummeting down into the abyss. In the final Act, as the guests seat themselves around the burning brazier to devour their feast of lamb (as Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ insouciantly but piquantly infiltrates the score), they slip back into the obsequious small talk of their opening dinner party in a futile attempt to re-establish social equilibrium, just as the quasi-waltz of Lucia’s Act 1 ‘ragout-aria’ lurches distortedly into ear-shot.

EXTERMINATING ANGEL PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Many of the moments of musical ‘stillness’ are built upon variation forms. For example, the music of Blanca’s Act 1 aria - based on the children’s poem ‘Over the Sea’ by Chaim Bialik - takes the form of variations on the Ladino song ‘Lavaba la blanca niña’, intimating the vapid predictability of post-dinner discourse. Many of the arias make use of strophic forms, and frequent pedal points and ostinatos enhance the sense of overwhelming stasis, as such repetitive devices musically embody habitual bourgeois behaviour. Even the thundering interlude between Acts 1 and 2 - which alludes to Buñuel’s Drums of Calanda (1964) and the filmmaker’s native Calanda where, during Holy Week, the drums would resound for three days and three nights - develops from a repeating rhythmic motif.

The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory.

There is no doubting Adès’s astonishing dexterity and perspicacity, nowhere more evident than in his inventive handling of the large orchestral forces, comprising piano, guitar and a whole arsenal of percussion. But, Buñuel’s black humour seems diluted; the ‘laughs’ - judging from the audience reaction at this performance - are primarily derived from recognition of musical echoes, which ironically makes Buñuel’s point.

ANNE SOFIE VON OTTER (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Anne Sofie von Otter. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Buñuel, irritated by attempts to psychologically ‘un-pick’ his film, retaliated, “I simply see a group of people who couldn’t do what they wanted to - leave a room”. (Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath, trans. Abigail Israel, 1984). Adès’s exterminating angel takes more tangible form. It is a supernatural or mythical force which takes possession of the guests and leads to what the composer describes as ‘an absence of will, of purpose, of action’. Musically, the angel is embodied by the nightmarish wail of the ondes martenot - the first time that Adès has used an electronic instrument in his music. At moments when the characters find themselves unable to act, or when they die, the return of this alien timbre reinforces their entrapment; it is a ‘voice’ that Adès describes as treacherously attractive and alluring, “like the sirens of Greek mythology, saying: ‘Stay!’”

Tom Cairns directs the large cast with meticulous attention to detail while Hildegard Bechtler’s set is sensibly sparse, dominated by an imposing, square proscenium which swivels like a Kafkaesque plot, denying the characters escape until the closing moments.

170421_0846 angel adj JOHN TOMLINSON (CENTRE) EXTERMINATING ANGEL PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg John Tomlinson (centre). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The cast list reads like a family-tree of British singing-aristocracy, with John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen relishing their character roles as fusty doctor and lusty conductor respectively, while Christine Rice sings beautifully as the latter’s wife, Blanca, and Sally Matthews wins our sympathy as the bereaved Silvia de Ávila who in Act III pitifully cradles a dead sheep in her arms believing that her ‘Berceuse macabre’ is a lullaby for her son Yoli. Anne Sofie von Otter is brilliantly baffled as the old battle-axe, Leonora Palma, slipping painfully from reality in her Act 3 aria, a number which sets Buñuel’s 1927 poem ‘It Seems to Me Neither Good Nor Evil’ - a textual strategy that Cairns and Adès employ in several of the ‘aria moments’ to convey the characters’ mental states.

IESTYN DAVIES, SALLY MATTHEWS (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Iestyn Davies and Sally Matthews. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

In a parodic Baroque mad aria, Iestyn Davies (as Francisco) becomes wonderfully and woefully unhinged when he finds that there are no coffee spoons with which to stir his post-dinner beverage, and his sister-fixation with Matthews’ Silvia is convincingly conveyed - well as ‘convincing’ as surrealism can be. Sophie Bevan and Ed Lyon are a touching pair of lovers, Beatriz and Eduardo, remaining apart from the bourgeois vacuities and choosing to commit suicide, in the score’s most delicate duet - a veritable Liebestod, sung from within a suffocating closet - rather than to become victims of the exterminating angel.

SOPHIE BEVAN, ED LYON (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Sophie Bevan and Ed Lyon. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Though I couldn’t hear a word she sang, Amanda Echalaz is a luscious-toned hostess, Lucia Marquesa de Nobile, and if Charles Workman, as her husband, scales the tenorial heights with aplomb, then Audrey Luna tops him, literally and figuratively, as Leticia Maynar - the opera singer whose performance in Lucia di Lammermoor ostensibly prompts the original gathering. Luna’s stratospheric peels are as ‘unreal’ as the ondes martenot’s eerie howl and perhaps it is no coincidence that Leticia, the so-called ‘Valkyrie’, who does not share the aristocratic pretensions of the other diners, is aligned with the otherness of the exterminating angel; for it is Leticia who first recognises their entrapment and it is she, at the close, who, with her strange quasi-medieval chanson, enables their ‘release’.

170419_0480 angel adj AUDREY LUNA (CENTRE) EXTERMINATING ANGEL PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Audrey Luna. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

At the end of El ángel exterminador, the characters are ‘freed’ by the re-enactment of the patterns of their imprisonment. The survivors go to the cathedral to mourn those who have been lost and give thanks for their own assumed emancipation, but as they seek solace in the passive church rituals they find themselves entrapped once more, the cathedral doors locked.

Adès and Cairns offer a different conclusion. The Chorus sing a line from the Requiem mass over and over in a chaconne that, it seems, could go on for ever. The score has no double-bar line to signal its close. The music simply stops in the present, presumably to continue for eternity. And, so, the opera is itself a ‘repetition’, or a ‘repetition with difference’, reprising Buñuel’s film and creating a discursive space between the media of film and opera.

Buñuel sometimes showed contempt for those who tried to pin down the ‘meaning’ of his films. A caption at the start of El ángel exterminador reads, ‘The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation’ and the film-maker declared, “This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If only we could find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence”. ( My Last Sigh)

But, it is difficult to ignore the search for ‘meaning’. One might look to Buñuel’s own time: are the film’s aristocrats, marooned in their elitism while the populace protest outside, a metaphor for Franco’s Spanish regime, from which Buñuel was in exile in Mexico when he made the film? Is the film a nihilistic statement by one who had witnessed the catastrophes of the Spanish Civil War?

At the ‘close’ of Adès’s opera I found myself wondering to what extent he was playing musical games and how far he was - hilariously and terrifyingly - satirising our own lives.

Claire Seymour

Thomas Adès: The Exterminating Angel

Libretto: Tom Cairns, after Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza

Leonora - Anne Sofie von Otter, Blanca - Christine Rice, Nobile - Charles Workman, Lucia - Amanda Echalaz, Raúl - Frédéric Antoun, Doctor - John Tomlinson, Roc - Thomas Allen, Francisco - Iestyn Davies, Eduardo - Ed Lyon, Leticia - Audrey Luna, Silvia - Sally Matthews, Beatriz - Sophie Bevan, Lucas - Hubert Francis, Enrique - Thomas Atkins, Señor Russell - Sten Byriel, Colonel - David Adam Moore, Julio - Morgan Moody, Pablo - James Cleverton, Meni - Elizabeth Atherton, Camila - Anne Marie Gibbons, Padre Sansón - Wyn Pencarreg, Yoli - Jai Sai Mehta; Director - Tom Cairns, Conductor - Thomas Adès, Set and costume designer - Hildegard Bechtler, Lighting designer - Jon Clark, Video designer - Tal Yarden, Choreographer - Amir Hosseinpour, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (ondes martenot - Cynthia Millar, piano - Finnegan Downie Dear), Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus director - William Spaulding).

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 24th April 2017.