Thomas Adès: The Exterminating Angel

Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, et al; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Thomas Adès (Erato / DVD)

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Thomas Adès
The Exterminating Angel
Audrey Luna, Amanda Echalaz, Sally Matthews, Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote, Christine Rice, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Frédéric Antoun, David Portillo, Rod Gilfry, John Tomlinson; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Thomas Adès; dir. Gary Halvorson (New York, 2017)
Erato DVD: 9029552550; Blu-ray: 9029552549   128 mins

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It’s only a short cultural step from Dr Johnson’s ‘irrational and exotic entertainment’ to Surrealism. Thomas Adès like other composers, notably Martinů, knows that dreams and nightmares seeping out of the unconscious are the very stuff of music drama. So The Exterminating Angel, based upon Luis Buñuel’s film in which a party of bourgeois guests find themselves unable to leave a dinner party and descend into barbarism and madness, becomes a profoundly unsettling opera. And in this recording of the production from the Met in New York you begin to wonder whether the guests are on stage or in the audience.

Adès, who co-wrote the libretto with his director Tom Cairns, is at one with the Spanish-born filmmaker: his imprisoned guests are rotten to the core, their privileged lives utterly selfish, masking dark desires and shady ambitions. And Buñuel’s anti-clericalism is here too – sheep without a ‘Shepherd’ that will end up barbecued after the interval. But Adès has his own last word – is it perhaps the power of song, sung by his prima donna Leticia (Audrey Luna) who frees the guests?

Sometimes the vast stage of the Met dwarfs Cairns’s production, first seen at Salzburg. The Exterminating Angel is in many respects a large chamber opera, despite a cast of 15 principals and a large orchestra, replete with ondes martenot and tolling bells, that is completely at home in a score that forges its distinctive identity from the Baroque to Berg’s Vienna. Then there are times, particularly in Act III, when the show literally ‘fades to black’ making it a challenge to see the action. But a magnificent cast that includes Alice Coote as a crazed dowager, Sophie Bevan and David Portillo as a pair of desperate lovers who take their own lives, Joseph Kaiser as Edmundo their host and John Tomlinson the sensible doctor, remind us that it is not the sleep of reason that brings forth monsters. Under the skin we are all beasts.

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Christopher Cook