Thomas Ades’ “The Exterminating Angels” At The Metropolitan Opera, Saturday, November 3rd, 2017, Reviewed
Last night during intermission at the Metropolitan Opera, a disgruntled patron of the arts grumbled. “A bunch of people screaming at each other is not entertainment”. No, it is politics in the US 2017. Luis Bunuel’s 1962 movie, “The Exterminating Angels” is about 17 members of the discrete bourgeois going to a post-opera dinner at one of their numbers mansion, and discovering they can not leave the living room. Composer Thomas Ades and librettist, working off the original screenplay, have made an opera of it. Bunuel’s original was the anarchist filmmakers surreal take on the inability of the upper classes to give up their capitalist gains for the greater good. The opera is about the loss of political willpower…. first performed in 2016, as the world careens down the road to nuclear action, it is about our collective inability to stop it happening.
Sung in English though Ades writes his opera, a screeching, sketchy waking nightmare make the words hard to understand and you will find yourself reading the subtitles, it adds the prosaic to the surreal in an opera much easier to admire than to enjoy: if you think of opera as beautiful arias by the likes of Tchaikovsky, this is not a tuneful melodrama but an ensemble piece of fear and loathing in high society. The twelve singers work as an ensemble, trading and sharing lines in a wild criss cross of anxiety. In this strange and disturbing time, the singers are paralyzed, without the will to leave the room, the stage for that matter, while we watch them as they revert to basic instinct.
The music is avant garde, its structure is a brutal singing against antagonistic, never beautiful, music as the scene unravels into a pure entropy and stasis (till they figure their way out). There is couple who commits suicide, incestuous siblings, a bear and sheep, and other odd, surreal again, occurrences and while not surreal the way, say, a Dali painting with a melting watch seems to connect back to a greater nothingness, there is an intelligence and a reasonable attempt to free themselves. The loss of a civilized response might remind you of a William Golding novel, it isn’t as brutal. The two Tom’s reason for the opera is quite a politic act, though not for the same reason as Bunuel: we live in a dystopian nightmare where we are paralyzed in the face of a spiral towards a nuclear showdown: in the movie a woman claims the lower classes have less feelings than the rich, the way North Koreans are meant to put less importance to their lives than Americans.
All the singer was exactly as great as you’d expect, though the Salzburg premiere performance got the great Annie-Sofie Mutter and we didn’t. Still, it was an opera where everybody shone, the bass Sir John Tomlinson as the voice of reason doctor, Iestyn Davies as the incestuous brother, Sally Matthews as the diva whose performance at the opera earlier in the evening they were celebrating, are all worth singling out.
Modern opera is an acquired taste, it is hard to hook yourself in, and the payment for your efforts during “The Exterminating ANgels” is a sense of dread and also of art as a conduit for a dread not really surreal or existential any more.