Saturday, November 04, 2017

The Exterminating Angel : The Opera

The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel's surrealistic dark comedy about a post-opera dinner party where the guests find themselves unable to leave, is one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. A savage indictment of upper-class bourgeois mores and traditional values, the film, made in Mexico by the iconoclastic Buñuel, was the opening night offering in the first year of the New York film Festival back in 1963.

Now, the movie has been turned into an opera, with a libretto by Tom Cairns based on the screenplay by Buñuel and the film's producer Luis Alcoriza.  The music is by British composer Thomas Adès, who in 2012 brought his The Tempest to the Metropolitan Opera.  After its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2016, his new opera is currently playing at the Met, with a production by the lyricist, and conducted by the composer himself.

The opera closely follows the film's plot, even using many of the same lines delivered by the actors. The composer and librettist have chosen English as the language of their adaptation, although Spanish is the film's original language.  It's an interesting change, but ultimately a logical one: Mr. Adès and Mr. Cairns are both British (Cairns was born in Northern Ireland) and these days most singing actors are better trained in singing English than Spanish, a language often absent in the majority of opera houses around the world.

Mr. Adès's score is the expected atonal musical language of the twentieth century. The orchestration is big and diverse, even adding a theremin, that strange electronic Russian instrument that provides an unearthly sound without physical contact from its player.  It is a perfect loopy addition for a surreal comedy. As is his custom, Mr. Adès insist on writing incredibly high tessitura challenges for the female voices, especially for the sopranos. Aesthetically, it is questionable whether the female human voice, reaching for notes beyond F above high C, is a very pleasant sound, but that does not stop the composer from providing ample bars containing these stratospheric high notes. That aside, without a doubt, the highlight of Mr. Adès's score is an interlude where musically he describes a dream/memory one of the characters has of a horrible train wreck.  The driving orchestration that Mr Adès achieves, together with the unbelievably high volume that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is asked to reach once again places that musical ensembles as one of the most polished in the whole world.

Mr. Cairns's staging differs greatly from the film. Whereas Buñuel's mise-en-scène revels in baroque clutter, the present staging chooses a minimalist approach. Also missing in this adaptation are direct references to the Catholic Church, an important aspect of the director's work, and especially a key aspect of the film's conclusion. Buñuel was notoriously anti-clerical and fond of offending established institutions, especially religious ones. The choice to remove this aspect (as well as an anti-Semitic joke) smacks of political correctness, and tears at the very core of Buñuel's savagery.

The technology of the Metropolitan Opera House far surpasses the analog effects of the low-budget original film.  A good example of this is the sequence when a severed hand appears crawling around the room.  The film could only afford a rubber prop pulled by a string. But the hand in the opera is a clever computerized projection that seems to crawl all over the proscenium-like stage that serves as a key part of the scenery. The severed extremity is a close cousin of Thing T. Thing (often referred to by just his last/first name!) the lovable character in the Addams Family films.

After the performance, I was happy to see that the singers took no solo vows, but came out to receive the audience's applause as an ensemble.  This opera, as the film, is truly an ensemble piece.  The only one who took a solo vow last night was the composer/conductor, and I guess that's the correct move.

If you like the film, and want to know where opera is headed, or where it is these days, don't miss this production of this work.