Premiered in 2016 at the Salzburg Festival, The Exterminating Angel by the english composer Thomas Adès is currently broadcast in cinemas around the world from the Metropolitan Opera of New York
A group of aristocrats is invited home by couple of friends after attending an opera.
The guests include opera singer Leticia Maynar who just performed Lucia di Lammermoor, conductor Alberto Roc and his wife Blanca Delgado, a pianist.
The group is completed by a young widow and her brother, an explorer, an engaged couple, a young colonel (who has an affair with the mistress of the house), a doctor and his patient.
The evening unfolds peacefully, between pretentious conversations and small-talk. People dine, chat politely, and then listen to Blanca play the piano.
Descent to H(Adès)
In the meantime, something strange happens in the kitchen: all the staff, except the butler, feel an urge and leave the premises.
The reverse effect takes place in the drawing-room: none of the guests wants to leave or is able leave the room. Even if the doors are open…
This absurd situation is also true from the outside, where no one can access the villa. The police, journalists, relatives and spectators find themselves trapped in the same limbo, unable to act.
After Powder her Face (premiered in 1995 at the Cheltenham Music Festival) and The Tempest, based on Shakespeare’s play (premiered in 2004 at the Royal Opera House), for his third opera Thomas Adès’ was inspired by the homonymous film by Luis Buñuel.
In his surrealist movie of 1962, the famous spanish director stages a collective experience, showing how, in an extreme situation, social conventions gradually loosen up.
Faced with lack of hygiene, food and privacy, the group of aristocrats loses its cohesion and allows itself to engage in “unacceptable” behaviour, ranging from taking off one’s jacket to cleaning one’s toes…
We closely observe the bubble in which privileged social classes live, while on the outside History takes its course. A nod to Buñuel’s film, which shows a demonstration repressed by violence, Tom Cairns’ staging places a group of workers and students outside the Villa that a threatening police force keeps at bay.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
The first thing we notice from the singers, who are 22 on stage (16 in the main roles) is that they are all confronted with the edge of their range, the vocal writing being extreme as the situation.
Thomas Adès has imagined a sound world specific to each character: for the frantic and restless Francisco de Ávila, Adès chooses a tessitura of countertenor. Iestyn Davies epitomizes beautifully this hateful and unsympathetic man, who absolutely can’t stir up his coffee using a teaspoon!
We admire the soft tone of the charming Duchess of Avila by Sally Matthews, we are moved by the velvety voice of David Portillo’s Eduardo, and we are surprised by the coldness with which Sophie Bevan’s Beatriz relates the carnage of the “commoners” in a railway accident. In her silk dress, Amanda Echalaz (Lucia de Nobile) fulfills her role of pretentious hostess alongside her husband Edmundo (Joseph Kaiser), while Christine Rice offers us an extremely credible Blanca in her descent into hell.
We appreciate the realism with which John Tomlinson and Alice Coote show the pathological relationship between Dr. Conde and his patient Leonora, we follow with concern the butler’s attempts (Christian van Horn) to manage the situation and maintain a certain amount of dignity, we grieve for Kevin Burdette’s dying Mr. Russell, and dislike the phony Alberto. In spite of very demanding roles, which sometimes force them to focus on breathing and posture, the performers succeed in catching our attention and making an impossible narrative plausible.
Stratospheric notes, described by the Metropolitan opera’s archivists as “never heard since 140 years”, are assigned to the diva of the evening, Leticia Maynar, perfectly embodied by Audrey Luna, with a flawless technique.
Thomas Adès’ dense and original orchestration contributes to plunge us into the “haunted house” of the De Nobile: the composer uses Martenot waves to create a disturbing and surreal ambience, and takes advantage of the similarity between this instrument and the human voice to trigger intriguing colour effects.
Widely used by Messiaen (but also by other musicians who have nothing to do with classical music), the Martenot waves are introduced during the intermission (according to the tradition of Met’s broadcasts) by Cynthia Miller, specially approached by the composer to contribute to the conception of this project.
Everything thus contributes to the anguish and anxiety of the characters on stage: mini violins, bells and a drum orchestra, in a nod to Franco’s Spain. Under the baton of Thomas Adès, the MET orchestra moves comfortably from supernatural sounds to flesh-and-blood violence, dragging us to this… eternal hell of a dinner.