The highly anticipated American première of Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel was an eminent success, with singers, orchestra, and staging all in top form. Based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film El ángel exterminador, the story revolves around a group of aristocrats gathering for a dinner party from which all but one of the servants has mysteriously disappeared. They soon to find themselves trapped in the host’s mansion, not by some physical obstacle but by an inexplicable psychological force. After a period of days, they decide to recreate the events of the fateful evening in an attempt to break free, and they are then able to leave the room. Here the opera deviates from the film in that everyone (both those inside and outside the mansion) eventually gets trapped back inside the room, whereas the film recreates the imprisonment in a church.

Amanda Echalaz (Lucia de Nobile), Christian Van Horn (Julio) and Iestyn Davies (Francisco de Ávila)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Dinner chimes rang discordantly through the opera house as the lights remained on (albeit dimmed), the chandeliers likewise stationary in their extended positions. Amidst lingering chatter in the audience, Adès stepped discreetly into the pit and began the performance without any warning. The servants were seen leaving, and the chandeliers rose only when the guests arrived at Señor Nóbile’s home, re-appearing and rising once again as the guests paradoxically entered a second time. Projected images of palm trees suggested the setting in Mexico City, but the singular location of the entire opera was the room in which the dinner guests were trapped.

The guests settle down for dinner, progress unhurriedly through it, and advance to the drawing room, where Blanca (Christine Rice) proceeds to play the piano. While Buñuel’s film has Blanca playing Pietro Domenico Paradisi’s Sixth Piano Sonata, the opera humorously has Blanca playing Adès’ very own Blanca Variations. The reference is made even more explicit after Leticia joins Blanca to sing, after which Raúl (Frédéric Antoun) implores Blanca to play “something by Adès”. Moments of humor like this abound in the opera, with comically complicated vocal lines accompanying rather simple dialogue and spots of pastiche music, such as adapted snippets from Ravel’s La Valse, accompanying other scenes, often deliberately incongruously. 

The Exterminating Angel
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The musical construction reflected the complexity and multi-layered implications of the story – the rather peculiar-sounding Ondes Martenot (played by Cynthia Millar) symbolically represented the force trapping the guests, as it sounded emphatically whenever anyone made an attempt to break free. Raucous military drums punctuated the interlude between the first and second acts, obliquely referencing Buñuel’s own ambiguous allusions to the Spanish Civil War under Franco’s Spain. And most sublimely, the phantom hand in the hallucinatory visions of Leonara (Alice Coote) during the third act was masterfully depicted by an energetic guitar solo, played by Michael Kudirka.

Adès vocal writing is sometimes criticized for being unreasonably high, and indeed Leticia’s (“La Valkiria” sung by Audrey Luna) lines were at times nearly in the stratosphere, but the cast handled their parts excellently. Especially laudatory was Sir John Tomlinson’s performance as Doctor Carlos Conde, the voice of reason amongst the discombobulated guests; his weighty bass tone projected well throughout the opera house and inflected all of Adès’ expressive details idiomatically.

Rod Gilfry (Alberto Roc), Amanda Echalaz (Lucia de Nobile) and Christine Rice (Blanca Delgado)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The close of the opera was chilling in its starkness and effective in its simplicity. A scene of commotion and hullabaloo ensued onstage as the guests were newly liberated from the confinement of the room. Hugs with family members and loved ones outside the mansion went around, behind which the massive archlike structure depicting the invisible doorway to the room rotated slowly and sinisterly. Everyone on stage mysteriously backpedaled themselves into the room, chanting Libera me de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat (Deliver me from eternal death and let eternal light shine). The opera ended abruptly with an impassioned cry of aeterna! as the lights blacked out.

Like Buñuel’s film, The Exterminating Angel resists explanation, and the ambiguity of the story drives much of its compelling nature. Superb execution all around, from Adès’ conducting, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s playing, Tom Cairns’ simple yet powerful production, and a top-notch cast of singers made for a highly captivating and memorable performance.