Sounds like hell Mr Adès: Looking in the mirror of The Exterminating Angel

I wasn’t sure I’d have the nerve to go through with it, watching an opera that seems to show us exactly the predicament we face. Based on the surreal film from Luis Bunuel, The Exterminating Angel was today’s free Metropolitan online offering. Composer Thomas Adès collaborated with Tom Cairns on the libretto.

Here we are, facing winter & being told again and again by our public health professionals: you must stay inside. This is in large measure the nightmare of The Exterminating Angel, as a group of guests find themselves unable to leave. We see the upper class at their ugliest, what could be understood as a kind of manners comedy: except they have no manners.

No wait that’s not true. The servants are all polite.

We’re in a world not unlike what you find in Lord of the Flies, except the descent into unmannerliness happens in formal attire at a rich man’s home, not a desert island.

Here’s the intermezzo between the first two acts, conducted by the composer including a close-up of the ondes Martenot towards the end of the clip just in case you were wondering what that odd sci-fi sound was in the orchestral texture. Not only are we not in Kansas anymore we seem to have left the planet Earth altogether: because we’re in the orchestra pit for an opera needing an appropriately otherworldly sound. Have a listen.

It wasn’t as difficult as expected. Not only did I watch and survive, but I also felt some relief, awareness that this story was largely a critique of a particular class of people, even if I might feel that its satirical finger might point at me and my brethren. Yes I’m also a privileged spectator right now, fortunate in terms of where I live & what I’m able to avoid. There are people in this city who are more vulnerable, especially the health-care workers: let alone those in other countries. So it’s cathartic to endure a nightmare that does indeed end from which one can wake up (unlike 2020, which goes on…).

The opera seems like a perfect fit for Adès. I had already decided I would set aside the misgivings I acquired reading Adès’ Conversations with Tom Service, a book that attacks some of my favorite operas, for the simple reason that I admire his music.

Composer Thomas Adès

The Tempest is one of the most impressive operatic adaptations I have ever seen & heard. Those two things (misgivings + admiration) combine perfectly in The Exterminating Angel. My misgivings arose over Adès’s admission that he admires positivist thinking, and my assumption that his rejection of the kind of religious ceremony at the heart of Parsifal might be a kind of doctrinal prejudice (which is another way of saying, perhaps he’s an atheist). The ideal piece for an agnostic / positivist to adapt as opera would have to be a kind of rejection of transcendence, and that’s precisely what Adès finds in Bunuel’s film.

There are at least two moments that might underline this philosophical drift.

When the three sheep appear in the last act, there’s a musical parody of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” that hits you over the head. I am reminded of the outrage of Pete Venkman (Bill Murray’s character in Ghostbusters) when the Staypuft Marshmallow Man steps on a church.


Should I be saying “Nobody mocks a Bach cantata in my town”?

Except Adès does such a good job..! And come to think of it, this makes a lot of sense in this nasty world of caprice and disorder. Indeed if we recall what the Bach Cantata would tell us, that “sheep may safely graze”..?

Ah but in this kaka world no they may not safely graze oh no.

They get devoured by the bourgeois barbarians. So perhaps Jesus would approve of what Adès does at this moment.

And then there’s the double meaning in the libretto, once in the first act and again in the last…. The pianist Blanca is given a request to play something.

“Blanca something by Hades I implore you” is the line in the libretto. At first glance you’d think the “by Hades” is an epithet comparable to “by gum” or “by golly”: except that when it’s sung by the tenor, he pronounces the word Hades “Adès”, making the line very interesting in a self-referential way.

Because of course she (and everyone else) sings or plays something by Adès.

No not Hades, not hell. Just Adès. Is that also a metaphysical reference perhaps? I leave that up to you

Adès is writing some very difficult music for his singers especially the sopranos. Audrey Luna, who had already conquered the world with her astonishing high notes as Ariel in Adès’s Tempest, is back singing even higher this time. John Tomlinson balances her stratospherics with his solidly grounded portrayal at the other end of the staff. The Met production includes several great portrayals including some we’ve heard in Toronto, namely Alice Coote, Joseph Kaiser, Frédéric Antoun, and Christian van Horn.

You’d think the subject intolerable in our pandemic, over a dozen people locked in arbitrarily, unable to escape, and while entrapped, confronted with their own lives. But it’s surprisingly cathartic not just because we know that actually we can go outside. Perhaps we notice how much we have to be grateful for..?

So in other words, while the idea of this story might scare you, in the midst of our pandemic it hits the spot. I’m very impressed with this creation of Adès & Cairns plus the cast & creative team at the Metropolitan Opera. This is not an easy opera to stage, indeed the casting requirements (including a soprano who can hit a high A above the usual high C) make it all but impossible.

We can’t accuse him of having taken the easy route

Move over Glass & Adams. As far as I can see & hear when I recall his Tempest Adès must be placed at the forefront with the most accomplished & successful composers of new opera. His website mentions ballets employing Dante’s Divine Comedy. If he’s an agnostic what would that sound like? Or perhaps I’m all wrong about his beliefs.

But I’ll be very interested to hear his new works either way.

This entry was posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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