Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel,” based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film and given its premiere recently at the Salzburg Festival, is easily the most eagerly anticipated opera of the year — and arguably of the decade thus far. It has had a classic mixed response. A London critic considered it a turning point for the art form; a Munich critic called it a work doomed to fail.
Sorry, Munich. At the fourth and last performance Monday night, Adès’ remarkable opera failed to fail. The audience in the Haus für Mozart (House for Mozart) gave its large, terrific cast and composer-conductor something rare in Salzburg: a full-out standing ovation.
What makes this reception extraordinary is that the opera happens to be a terrifying indictment of the bourgeoisie. The aristocrats who traditionally support this, the most prestigious of the Great European Festivals, had more than enough reason to hate everything “The Exterminating Angel” stands for. But in the town where Mozart was born (and couldn’t escape its provinciality fast enough), musical greatness is what ultimately matters. After all, Mozart’s socially abrasive comic operas, in which the upper class is undone by servants, started the tradition of composers biting the bourgeois hands that feed them. Now, of course, the Mozart tourist trade keeps Salzburg well-fed.
Buñuel began his Spanish-language film by showing servants for no apparent reason rushing from the palatial home where a lavish dinner party is being held to celebrate an opera singer having just performed “Lucia di Lammermoor.” On the screen this seems an offhand surreal comic gesture, just like the sheep being taken to the backyard.
As in the film, there are sheep on the Salzburg stage, three live ones grazing as the audience walks in. Bells are ringing. The opera begins madcap, with the servants’ exits and dizzying greetings of “enchanted” in complex ensembles nearly impossible to contrapuntally untangle. In the opera house, the gesture becomes a radically enhanced and potentially dangerous èpater le bourgeois.
The servants dash, but the dinner guests aren’t going anywhere. A mysterious force keeps the guests confined to a single room for days. They don’t know why, but they simply can’t leave. The living room becomes a petri dish for the wealthy, society’s seemingly most capable and successful, to react when placed in an extreme situation. A doctor and army captain try to keep the peace, but the captains of industry, or their wives, prove to have a gene for self-destruction.
Adès and librettist Tim Cairns, who also directed the production, follow Buñuel’s text closely, though necessarily cutting, since music fills in time. They limit the guests to a dozen rather than 17. With about two hours of music, the opera is also 25% longer.
What to say about Adès music? His blatantly sexual 1995 “Powder Her Face” demonstrated a young composer’s flair for a touching mix of parody and empathy expressed in wildly flamboyant musical style. His more sophisticated but still shockingly plucky “The Tempest” about a decade later had a kind of forced maturity demanded of an aging prodigy.
With “Exterminating Angel,” Adès commands a wide range of musically disparate techniques. The German and Austrian critics have complained about his lack of a retrogressive style. In fact, Adès is an impossible-to-pin-down disintegration of retrogressive styles. “Exterminating Angel” is an opera of decadence quickly decaying. And we understand it through musical decays, not just notes fading away. Whole musical forms, such as the waltz or the chaconne, fall apart just as the dinner party does. If there is a method to all the musical madness, it is hysteria raised to exhilarating new heights.
We get to know the bloated inner lives of several guests through arias. They are decay arias in some cases, spewing forth Wagnerian bombast. And yet there is humor and beauty, and there is a weirdly moving celebration of life. You can’t show decay without revealing the life force that is slipping away. By bringing these people to the brink, we find out what in them is worth saving, even if they, and maybe we, don’t know what it is.
There is an enormous amount to take in musically on first hearing. The cast is an outstanding ensemble that includes Thomas Allen as a randy old conductor and Christine Rice as his nervous pianist wife. Bass John Tomlinson is the rationalist doctor as kind of Wagnerian god, and Anne Sofie von Otter gives a brilliant character portrait as his dying patient. Audrey Luna is the stratospheric diva. The countertenor Iestyn Davies is funny, then disturbing, as a supercilious young socialite. There are many more.
Cairns’ production is the one weak point, replacing Buñuel’s surreal elegance with what comes across as an operatic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But Adès’ conducting of the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna brings out a whirlwind of orchestral colors, highlighted by the Theremin-like Ondes Martenot, a world in its own. We no longer need worry about mysterious forces at work with this orchestra of living toys (to borrow the name of early Adès score). We sense them for ourselves.
“The Exterminating Angel” is a four-way commission. Over the next couple of years, it will move on to Royal Opera in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Danish Royal Opera in Copenhagen. For now, anyway, that means it joins the ranks of the other two great operas written in L.A. — Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” and Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” — never given a proper staging in L.A.