“The Exterminating Angel” is a scary new opera based on a scarier old movie.
Rough, dark and depressing, the opera, by British composer Thomas Adès and his co-librettist Tom Cairns, will make its MET Live in HD American debut at 11 a.m. Saturday. It will be livestreamed from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to Fort Lewis College.
Last year, “Angel” had its world premiere in Salzburg and went on to Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House before arriving on our shores.
The opera closely follows Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist masterpiece, “El Angel Exterminador.” Buñuel’s bitter film appeared after a string of darkly pessimistic 20th-century movies. “Angel” imagined a bleak universe where nothing makes sense. It’s ruled by rich, incompetent one-percenters.
In his lifetime, Buñuel wouldn’t say if “Angel” was a satirical critique of Spanish elites during the fascistic Franco era. Yet the spirit of indulgence, complicity and degradation in troubled times hangs over the film.
Adès’ new opera follows Buñuel’s screenplay closely. A wealthy couple, Lucia and Edmundo De Nobile (soprano Amanda Echalaz and tenor Joseph Kaiser) host an after-opera dinner party. Leticia Maynar (the stratospheric soprano Audrey Luna) is the guest of honor – the diva who has just entertained everyone as the lead in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Need I say the theme of madness is appropriate.
Guests arrive at the De Nobile mansion on Providence Street with conventional upper-crust greetings – “Enchanted,” “Delightful,” “Charming.” Sensing disaster, all but one of the servants have abandoned the estate. After the dinner begins, everything deteriorates. Then for unknown reasons, no one leaves. Confusion reigns, and the party devolves into days of degradation and despair. What gets exterminated is the will to act.
Adès said in a recent interview that the exterminating angel of the title “is an absence” of will, purpose and action. The force that normally “makes us act” against injustice or evil has been eliminated.
Both film and opera immerse us in what David Brooks has called a siege mentality. And Zach Woolfe wrote in the New York Times (Oct. 20): “The sensation of frozenness, of being enmeshed in a crisis from which it’s impossible to withdraw, may well be familiar to anyone who follows the news.”
Buñuel gave us a dark, uncomfortable fairy tale that tended toward horror. Now, Adès has heightened that tale with music. Famously, Buñuel’s film had no music at all, so one might expect an opera based on the surrealist premise of entrapment to be even more intense. Apparently, it is.
Adès’ music is eclectic in style and has been characterized by critics as thorny and modernist, but also audacious as it combines Straussian waltzes, songs from the Ladino tradition of Sephardic Jews and even a lullaby.
The film runs 90 minutes. A three-minute trailer can be seen on YouTube and is worth a look as it sets the mood. The three-act opera has one intermission and lasts two and a half hours.
Because the college is technically closed for Thanksgiving break, the cafeteria and coffee shop will be closed. But Charles Leslie and the Concert Hall staff will provide free coffee. Bring your lunch or a snack, a pillow and a wool shawl. You’ll need some comfort for this rough, dark and decadent opera.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.