In what was surely one of the operatic highlights of the year, Adès’s third opera, after Luis Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador, premiered at the Salzburg Festival in July.
Directed by Tom Cairns, who together with the composer has created a libretto by adapting the original screenplay, the opera was commissioned by Salzburg in co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden where it opens in April 2017), the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Royal Danish Opera.
Buñuel’s classic film, a parable on the ‘bourgeois condition’, sees a collection of society’s grandees surreally trapped together in a room. In no time at all their veneer of sophistication cracks, and society and its interrelations are brutally placed under the microscope. Featuring a jaw-dropping line-up of operatic talent (15 principals who remain on stage for the majority of the piece), The Exterminating Angel is a true ensemble opera, and the skill with which Adès delineates the many intricacies and undercurrents present over its densely-packed span (just under two hours plus interval) is breathtaking.
Like the shipwrecked characters of The Tempest, the cast of this new opera are held in a state of entrapment and dramatic stasis. Like the glittering high-society world of Powder Her Face, the dinner party guests are denizens of a nightmarish world of aristocratic pretension. ‘In a sense, this is a child of those two operas,’ Adès observed, ‘but that comparison has receded, and this opera is a very different animal. Probably a scarier animal.’
In the pit a large and masterfully deployed orchestra is prominently coloured by guitar, piano and ondes martenot – the latter (played here by the world’s leading virtuoso, Cynthia Millar) soaring above proceedings as a eerie manifestation of the nameless force that ensnares the guests. In one interlude, massed off-stage drums thunder insistently, elsewhere countertenor Iestyn Davies sings a rapturous ode to coffee spoons and the young lovers Eduardo and Beatriz (Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan) sing a tender suicide-pact duet. Audrey Luna (who previously sang Ariel in The Tempest), sings the stratospheric role of Leticia, whose blazing final aria seems to offer liberation. The opera is open ended, however, concluding with a return of the chiming bells with which it opened, and the chorus intoning a repeated fragment of the Requiem Mass. There is no final double bar.
Full cast and instrumentation details can be found here
‘Three live sheep, trained to the highest operatic standards, mooch on stage. Bells chime. Servants depart just as dinner guests in jewels and finery arrive. “Enchanted, enchanted”, they intone some two dozen times between them on variants of the same musical rise and fall. It’s the start of an evening that, for them, will prove anything but. Then they repeat the process, the orchestra scrunching and cavorting in elegant, seductive mayhem, a mood of crazed waltz in the air and sinister expectation. If these guests are enchanted, we the audience are already bewitched…
‘A turning point for Adès and, it felt, for opera itself.’
When the composer, who also conducted, took his bow, the audience rose in prolonged ovation. This was a momentous evening: a turning point for Adès and, it felt, for opera itself… It’s as if all music is buoyantly alive and coexisting in its two-hour span… This is no idle game of spot the composer. Prodigious from early childhood, Adès has devoured, lived and breathed everything that caught his ear, letting all manner of music nourish his imagination. We expect artists and writers to do this, yet with composers we inevitably reach for the adjective “eclectic” in a tone of mistrust. This precise quality is the essence of Adès’s style. It is easier to think of him as a musical polylinguist: in whichever tongue, the identity of the speaker is never in doubt. Patterns are set up, reshaped, challenged, subverted, all the strands, in every colour and ply, tightly woven and rhythmically daring…There are too many theatrical and musical coups to mention… Even from a passenger seat in the stalls, this angel soars aloft.’
The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 31 July 2016
‘Some of Adès’s most powerful orchestral writing… The music is constantly fascinating… Cairns’s staging is as meticulously detailed as Adès’s score.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 29 July 2016
‘Brilliant… utterly assured writing, clever, effective, dazzling’
The Financial Times (Shirley Apthorpe), 29 July 2016
‘A true ensemble opera’
‘The music pulses with searing power, frenetic breathlessness and an astringent harmonic language… An exceptionally inventive and audacious score. I was swept along by the way Adès executes his vision… a true ensemble opera.’
The New York Times (Anthony Tomassini), 29 July 2016
‘Packed full of provocation and ideas… Amidst the brutal descent into anarchy, Adès’s skill at being ironic shines through time and again. It’s not every day that the premiere of an experimental opera receives a standing ovation.’
Der Spiegel (Werner Theurich), 29 July 2016
‘Intoxicating and at times quite brutal; for all its scorching passion, the opera leaves one chilled to the bone’
‘The moments of rupture are articulated with precision and an unwavering awareness of the possibilities of the genre. Bells ring, even before the audience is seated, submerging the habitual pre-performance rituals in a growing gloop of cleverly managed overtones… Other devices populate the score throughout, such as the use of chaconne structures, or the way the music lurches into a waltz when certain characters approach the threshold, drawing them back into the scene less by malicious force than by seduction… Bechtler’s set and costumes mix Art Deco glamour with shrewd economy, while the revolving set, reinforces the roving perspective internal to the score… [This is] the opera Adès needed to write in order to be himself. Like its predecessors, the music remains astonishing in its confidence and dramatic versatility; but here, when Adès’s elusive aesthetic itself becomes integrated into the drama’s vertiginous psychological landscape, the music acquires another edge entirely. The effect is intoxicating and at times quite brutal; for all its scorching passion, the opera leaves one chilled to the bone.’
The Times Literary Supplement (Guy Dammann), 19 August 2016
‘Adès is as compelling as any contemporary practitioner of his art because he is, first and foremost, a virtuoso of extremes. He is a refined technician, with a skilled performer’s reverence for tradition, yet he has no fear of unleashing brutal sounds on the edge of chaos. Although he makes liberal use of tonal harmony he subjects that material to shattering pressure. He conjures both the vanished past and the ephemeral present… Like Berg, the 20th-century master whom he most resembles, he pushes ambiguity to the point of explosive crisis… Never have Adès’s extremes collided more spectacularly… in his hands Buñuel’s cool, eerie scenario takes on a tragic volatility… Throughout, Adès pulls off the Stravinskyan feat of making prior styles sound like premonitions of his own… Liberation is achieved not only by a ritual of repetition but also through a visionary aria for Leticia… When the spell of immobility resumes, seraphic harmonies give way to a colossal, demonic setting of fragments of the Libera Me, with bells ringing anarchic changes. On this note of mystical dread the opera closes, no exit in sight.’
The New Yorker (Alex Ross), 22 August 2016
‘Never have Adès’s extremes collided more spectacularly…’
‘The most important opera of the year, proves it’s here to stay… Remarkable… The audience gave its large, terrific cast and composer-conductor something rare in Salzburg: a full-out standing ovation… An opera of decadence quickly decaying… Whole musical forms, such as the waltz or the chaconne, fall apart just as the dinner party does… Adès’ conducting of the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna brings out a whirlwind of orchestral colors.’
The LA Times (Mark Swed), 9 August 2016