Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel is one of the most exciting new operas to come to the Met in recent years. This was the second in an eight-performance run (with a cinema relay on Saturday the Eighteenth). Much of the impressive cast took part in the Salzburg Festival world-premiere and also in the first UK run at The Royal Opera. There were noteworthy contributions from Joseph Kaiser and Amanda Echalaz as the hosts of the ill-fated dinner party, Sophie Bevan and David Portillo as suicidal lovers, Sally Matthews and Iestyn Davies as high-strung siblings, and, above all, John Tomlinson as the doctor who labors to maintain calm as events spin increasingly out of control.
Adès’s score incorporates a wide range of styles, including discordant dialogue, a waltz-like aria, a tender love-death duet, and a quasi-Baroque piano solo, with flamenco and martial-drumming also in the mix. Each character is given a distinct musical expression and the way in which they combine is ever-changing. Adès uses an ondes Martenot to highlight points in the drama where characters try to leave the room or contribute through dialogue as to their inability to do so. The writing for Leticia, the opera-diva honoree of the dinner, brilliantly performed by Audrey Luna, is generally satiric, her extremely grating coloratura raising the question of why the assembled guests would have paid to hear her sing earlier that evening. In the final Act, however, she sings without any jarring a twelfth-century Ladino paean to Jerusalem.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costumes ably sustain interest as we watch people trapped in the room. The huge proscenium-like arch serves to delimit the space in which they are confined, often moving slowly as the storyline continues, thereby altering the vantage point from which we view the action. Clever effects accompany the solutions to their need for water and food, and Tal Yarden’s projections heighten the psychological deterioration of the distraught captives.
I came away fascinated if somewhat bewildered; there is often too much happening simultaneously – both musically and dramatically – to be fully absorbed in a single sitting. Both Luis Buñuel’s film, to which Adès is for the most part faithful, and the opera’s several deviations from it raise questions to which there is no obvious answer. What lessons should we take away from the alienation and amorality of the elite class? How are we to understand the plot-device by which the survivors are finally able to leave? Does the final scene (which differs from the movie) cast further doubt on the very notion of free will, and suggest, along with all of us, that they remain trapped in a space from which there is no escape?