The Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Exterminating Angel, an adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 Surrealist film El ángel exterminador by British composer Thomas Adès, has been much anticipated, particularly as it is the only contemporary opera produced by the Met this season. There is talk that when the Met’s Music Director Designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin fully assumes his post in 2020, he will commit to programming more world premieres, not just the occasional North American or US premier, as has long been the Met’s practice. Those of us who value contemporary classical music hope this will prove to be more than a voice crying out in the wilderness. For now, we must content ourselves with the occasional new work while we hope for the wind to change.
In their libretto, Adès and his collaborator Tom Cairns follow the plot of Buñuel’s film closely: a group of aristocrats return from a night at the opera to a lavish mansion from which the servants have mostly fled, apparently without cause. The butler makes do serving dinner, and afterward the guests find themselves unable to leave the drawing room, again for reasons that are not explained. For several days thereafter, no one is able to leave or enter; as discomfort soon becomes danger (the drawing room isn’t stocked with food or water), the respectable façade of this polite society quickly dissolves, despite appeals to reason by Doctor Carlos Conde and the ever-gracious host, Edmundo de Nobile. Some guests do not survive. Eventually, those remaining are suddenly able to leave, but the reason is just as mysterious as the one that previously kept them confined. Ultimately, the entire community, including the citizens gathered outside, gets caught again in the same kind of inscrutable trap.
The score has many memorable moments. As the dinner guests’ plight gradually dawns on them, the music meanders through changing tempos and jolting, staccato rhythms that reflect the impending horror. There is a terrific moment of chaos when the guests first try to leave the drawing room; the ondes martenot (an early electronic instrument with a theremin-like quality) slides down several octaves with the entire string section. When, at the end, the whole city seems to be stuck behind another doorway, the orchestra plays furiously under a pre-recorded drum track that sounds like a militaristic, psychotic version of Ravel’s “Bolero.” It is purposefully out of sync with the orchestra and, in what seemed to me a faulty choice, it cuts out mid-rhythm, as if the tape had been stopped randomly.
Similarly, there are truly outstanding performances. A young couple, Beatriz and Eduardo (Sophie Bevan and David Portillo), sing a haunting duet about their suicide pact when the tortures of the room they cannot leave overwhelm them. The opera singer Leticia Maynar (Audrey Luna) flies into panic attacks, singing in a range that makes the Queen of the Night sound like a gruff baritone. Sir John Tomlinson’s performance as Doctor Conde was one of the best of the evening; his rich bass voice gave his character a commanding authority and an almost luxurious bedside manner as he reassured the other guests with hilariously decreasing effectiveness.
The stage design is striking, consisting mostly of a monumental wooden door frame that rotates on its own. As my attention was repeatedly drawn to it, I was reminded of the biblical resonance of the title; this frame is unmarked with blood, leaving those underneath vulnerable to terrible punishment. The set has a sleek, midcentury modern look that differs from the more sumptuous set of the film. In a thoughtful touch, the space of the opera house is used to charming effect when the Met’s Sputnik chandeliers descend and light up over the audience at key points of repetition, as if the show were actually restarting.
The 1962 film is funny and pessimistic, and like many Surrealist works that seek to unsettle the complacent bourgeoisie, it is heavy-handed. That may not be a bad thing. Buñuel’s critique of the Spanish upper crust that was complicit in Franco’s reign of terror was appropriately vicious, but it seems to me very much a product of its time. Besides the neat coincidence that the dinner guests in the production are still in their opera house attire, I found myself wondering why this is a story that needed to be retold in operatic form.
To adapt a singular film like Buñuel’s into any other medium is a tall order; Surrealism works largely by surprise, and any adaptation of a surrealistic classic starts at a disadvantage because many in the audience will be familiar with the source. For me, even a repeated viewing of the film does little to deepen its mystery, and neither the original nor this adaptation is likely to loosen anyone’s bourgeois fetters. As the Met’s lone contemporary opera this year, it’s a curiously safe bet, despite its ostensible edginess.