The end of all human dignity

Thomas Adès’ latest opera, The Exterminating Angel, is probably his most ambitious and best to date.  It received its US premiere at the Met in 2017 and was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series, subsequently being released on DVD and Blu-ray.  It’s based on the surrealist 1962 Buñuel film.  It’s a very strange plot.  A group of more or less upper class guests attend a dinner after an opera performance.  All the servants except the butler have (inexplicably) left the house.  The guests seem unable to leave the room they are in nor can anyone from outside enter it.  This goes on for days(??) during which the guests accuse each other of various perversions including incest and paedophilia and turn violent while still expressing delicate aristocratic sensibilities like an inability to stir one’s coffee with a teaspoon.  There’s a suicide pact, a bear and several sheep involved before the “spell” to escape the room is discovered.  What happens afterwards is unclear.  (The opera omits the closing scenes of the film).  It’s very weird and quite unsettling; Huis Clos meets Lord of the Flies?


Musically, it’s a tour de force. One might expect it to be, as so many contemporary operas are, like a rather sophisticated movie sound track overlaying almost speech like vocals but it’s not that at all.  The orchestral writing is often a bit like a really spooky sci-fi horror film with extensive use of the ondes Martenot but it goes off in other directions too; parodying various musical styles and creating a really complex sound world.  The vocal writing is quite different too.  The women, especially, tend to get very high (and difficult) declamatory vocal lines that are not at all speech like culminating in the “spell” scene where Audrey Luna, as the opera singer Leticia gets an aria that is both weird and (surprise) stratospherically high.  Along the way too there’s solo guitar and piano and an interlude between acts 1 and 2 that blends the ondes Martenot and a lot of percussion to striking effect.

The production, by librettist Tom Cairns, is pretty straight forward and literal.  He manages to convey a sense of claustrophobia despite the huge Met stage.  No doubt video makes it easier to do that though.  There’s a very large, mostly British, cast and some very fine performances.  Luna is there to do what she does and she’s very good.  John Tomlinson steals the show much of the time as the doctor who is both the voice of reason and weirdly obsessed with baldness.  Joseph Kaiser and Amanda Echalaz are outstanding as the hosts of the dinner.  Iestyn Davies is a very creepy, etiquette obsessed, homosexual while Alice Coote plays a demented exponent of the Kabbalah.  Add to them the likes of Sally Matthews, Christine Rice, Rod Gilfry, Sophie Bevan and at least a dozen more solo roles and you can see why this probably isn’t coming to your local opera house anytime soon.  The composer conducts and the Met orchestra and chorus are their usual excellent selves.


Gary Halvorson directed the video.  It’s not at all typical of his work as I experienced it a few years ago when the incessant ultra close-ups drove me crazy.  This is much more typical of the contemporary approach to filming opera giving a good sense of the overall action.  However that comes at a price here as many scenes are very dark and there are long stretches, especially in Act 3, where on DVD one can’t really see anything at all.  I’m sure there was more detail in the cinema and I would expect the same to be true on Blu-ray.  Otherwise, technically it’s fine with vivid sound on both surround (DTS 5.1) and stereo tracks.


The disc has the usual Met in HD extras, with Susan Graham hosting this one.  The booklet has a synopsis and an essay but no track listing.  Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish.


So, an important new opera recorded with some fine performances.  Definitely worth a look but do see it on Blu-ray rather than DVD if you can.


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