The festival atmosphere is always special: tension and anticipation whir through the air, even more than when they do in the ordinary season. Add to this the ghostly chiming of the clock and the presence on stage of three sheep while the audience are still looking for their seats, and you get a mood of complete mystery.

As soon as it sets foot in the auditorium of the Haus für Mozart, the audience finds itself in the sound world of The Exterminating Angel. This new commission of the Salzburg Festival,  in collaboration with other high profile opera houses like the Metropolitan Opera in New York, featured an enticing roster of soloists. The basis for Thomas Adès’s opera is not a work of literature but one of cinema: Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film El ángel exterminador, which Adès first saw at the age of thirteen.

Tom Cairns has been working on the libretto with Adès since 2009. To turn Buñuel’s story into something suitable for the stage,  they were, unsurprisingly, forced to merge a number of the characters in the film as well as to cut some scenes and create new ones. Finally, the story took shape of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile, who invite twelve guests to their villa after an opera performance. Importantly, at the arrival of the guests, all the servants except Julio leave the villa. And rightly so: after it gets late, some of the guests attempt to go home,  but are continually diverted from doing so, until it eventually becomes clear that for everyone in the group, for reasons that remain unclear, it is impossible for them to depart.

What follows are two nights and days in which the trapped people deal with the situation, each in their different ways. The Exterminating Angel shows the psychological differences between people whose ability to act is lost and who are therefore condemned to idleness. There ensues huge chaos that spirals out of control, at the end of which three guests are dead, the sheep are roasted over an open fire, water gushes in from a pipe that they have broken to get drinking water, the soprano Leticia finds her way back to freedom.

As the guests and hosts repeat the first evening to the point that Leticia is called upon to sing, and this time agrees to the request, the spell is broken and everyone is able to leave the devastated room. In front of the house, they meet concerned and interested people who have already nervously assembled there.

This house was not to be seen on the stage. Rather, a simple backdrop on the left hand side of the stage showed a full height golden wardrobe which moved to the dead centre of the stage and served as a depository for the corpses as well as a toilet. In the middle of the stage stood a huge arch made of dark wood, nearly as tall as the wardrobe, which marked out the entry into the accursed salon. 1970s-1980s style sofas, tables and piano moved around slowly backwards and forwards on a revolve. The opera was staged by librettist Tom Cairns – already an experienced film director – emphasising the surreal situation by the slow but steady movement of the room and of the people within. To have fourteen soloists on stage acting simultaneously without overtaxing the audience is no easy undertaking, but Cairns managed to keep on-stage proceedings logical and smooth.

What was coming out of the orchestra pit was consistently able to impart clarity and order to the situation. Adès’s music, conducted for this première by the composer himself, was highly atmospheric. He does not attempt to bring about the unheard with extraordinary means. The Exterminating Angel showed itself this evening far more as a Gesamtkunstwerk, blending a surreal plot with matching music, lighting and scenery into a self-contained entity, telling a story with an uncertain, open end.

Still, the music was clearly understandable, subordinate to the service of the plot much as film music might be, reflecting the emotional states of each character. Dr. Carlos Conde is the point of calm in the middle of this fractured group, attempting to find an explanation for everything; he is portrayed with an earthy bass, sung by Sir John Tomlinson. After exciting rhythms filled with resounding notes in the highest register of soprano Leticia, sung by Audrey Luna brightly but never with shrillness, one could happily allow oneself to sink into one’s seat with Tomlinson’s relaxing lines. One was sometimes engrossed, sometimes almost lost in listening to a music in which Adès created a sense of eternity with the toll of the bells , in which the beautiful, seductive sound of the Ondes Martenot reminded one of the Sirens of Greek mythology and, as the sonic exterminating angel, condemned the guests to stay with a beautiful melody.

The appropriate atmosphere was taken care of by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, which provided a solid and richly coloured underpinning, above which the assembly of soloists was able to give convincing performances, both vocally and dramatically, in roles that were demanding in rhythm and tessitura. The Salzburg Bach Choir also fitted very well into the setting. Such fantastic work makes one hope for more of this sort of première in future.


Translated from German by David Karlin.