The Royal Opera – UK premiere of Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel; directed by Tom Cairns; conducted by the composer; cast includes Thomas Allen, Anne Sofie von Otter, John Tomlinson, Iestyn Davies, Christine Rice, Sally Matthews…

Thomas Adès
The Exterminating Angel – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Tom Cairns in collaboration with the composer, after the screenplay by Luis Buñuel & Luis Alcoriza for the film El angel exterminador [UK premiere; sung in English, with English surtitles]

Julio – Morgan Moody
Lucas – Hubert Francis
Meni – Elizabeth Atherton
Camila – Anne Marie Gibbons
Enrique – Thomas Atkins
Pablo – James Cleverton
Edmundo de Nobile – Charles Workman
Lucía de Nobile – Amanda Echalaz
Álvaro Gómez – David Adam Moore
Sergio Russell – Sten Byriel
Alberto Roc – Thomas Allen
Blanca Delgado – Christine Rice
Raúl Yebenes – Frédéric Antoun
Leonora Palma – Anne Sofie von Otter
Silvia de Ávila – Sally Matthews
Francisco de Ávila – Iestyn Davies
Eduardo – Ed Lyon
Beatriz – Sophie Bevan
Dr Carlos Conde – John Tomlinson
Leticia Maynar – Audrey Luna
Padre Sansón – Wyn Pencarreg
Yoli – Jai-Sai Mehta

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Thomas Adès

Tom Cairns – Director
Hildegard Bechtler – Set & Costume Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting Designer
Tal Yarden – Video Designer
Amir Hosseinpour – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 April, 2017
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The Royal Opera – Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating AngelPhotograph: Clive BardaExistential crisis is no recent phenomenon and was hardly more so fifty-five years ago when Luis Buñuel released El angel exterminador, his stinging attack on bourgeois mores which set the tone for a generation’s worth of ever more scabrous films about the ‘establishment’ real and imagined. Refashioning this for the present, Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns have rendered the scenario from a vantage point where absolute notions have been superseded by a more ambivalent take on what constitutes freedom of action in a divisive and frequently alienated environment.

Musically the opera follows on audibly from Adès’s earlier stage-works in resorting to vocal extremes almost as a means of parodying rather than enhancing intense emotion, yet there is little that cannot be justified by its immediate context and it helps when Cairns’s text is focussed theatrically, yet rhythmically and syntactically subtle, to a degree matched by few recent English librettos. Instrumentally, Adès is mindful to balance his coups de théâtre with a concern for dramatic continuity to confirm this as a mature and assured undertaking.

The Royal Opera – Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating AngelSophie Bevan and Ed LyonPhotograph: Clive BardaCairns’s staging avoids any overt sensationalism in favour of incremental change and strategic surprise. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets have a stark immediacy which never impedes stage action, not least the (sometimes revolving) proscenium arch that defines the protagonists’ separation from the outside world to an increasingly tangible degree. Jon Clark’s lighting reinforces this remove in its graphic division of the stage-space, aided by inventive video elements from Tal Yarden and choreography by Amir Hosseinpour as fluid or static as the stage-action requires.

In an ensemble opera with most of the cast present for most of the time, it may be invidious to single out individual performers. Yet the parts for Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Allen are superbly geared for voices no longer at their freshest, with those for the younger female singers precisely judged in their timbral and expressive contrasts. A histrionic role for Iestyn Davies aside, the male voices are less distinctive in terms of character, but John Tomlinson’s role as a vocal and dramatic anchor brings rationality to the most heightened confrontations.

The Royal Opera – Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating AngelJohn Tomlinson (centre)Photograph: Clive BardaAdès summons a virtuosic response from the Royal Opera House orchestra, not least in the drum-dominated interlude between the first two Acts. Elsewhere, the ondes Martenot gives a Rózsa-like unreality to proceedings and a guitar provides suavity to the opera-singer’s set-piece. Echoes and allusions abound, yet there is nothing facile or self-conscious about the outcome; rather these serve to open-out Adès’s means of expression yet without drawing attention to themselves in any hollow or superficial manner – another indication of lessons well-learned.

The question remains as to whether Adès and Cairns’s modification of Buñuel’s ending can provide a comparable revelation. A first encounter suggests that, for all the climactic import of what is seen and heard, the task of securing a conceptual equivalent in an ostensibly more sophisticated yet cynical age has not quite been surmounted. For all that, The Exterminating Angel makes a powerful impact and leaves a disquieting impression. At a time when neither old solutions nor easy answers seem tenable, this is as much as could reasonably be expected.

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