The Exterminating Angel is a 93 minute long movie by the surrealist director Luis Buñuel. It’s also a two and a half long opera (that leaves out the church scene at the end of the film) by English composer Thomas Adès. The Met today telecasted its new production of the work under the orchestral direction of its composer. The opera has been a critical success and the Met’s audience seemed to like it. Whether it will earn a place in the standard repertory is a guess, mine is that it won’t.

Writing a surrealistic opera presents a problem of intense redundancy. Opera is a surrealistic art form. When it succeeds it is because it taps into some basic emotional truth or permanent state of consciousness and thus transcends reality. Film, on the other hand, is an intrinsically realistic medium. Thus, a surrealistic movie plays against type and if well done can convey meanings that are difficult to articulate.

An opera that has 15 principal characters, as does this work, is sure to lack a single one that an audience can identify with or relate to. Then there’s the musical idiom that Adès employs – lots of noise, not a tune in 2.5 hours, not much in rhythmic cohesion, and tonal ambiguity. All this well played chaos, lack of emotional impact, and absence of dramatic involvement are the characteristics of a modern opera that soon either becomes an occasional curiosity or disappears altogether.

There isn’t much of a story here. A group of affluent guests arrive after an opera performance at the home of the de Nobile family. For unspecified reasons they cannot leave though there is no physical impediment to their exit. Over time their conditions deteriorate and by the end of the opera they can and do leave. Buñuel refused to say what his story meant, because on a conscious level it means nothing. The viewer has to make of it what he will.

The production was under the control of the opera’s co-librettist Tom Cairns (Adès was the other writer). It was effective and delineated the slender story with skill and style. The cast (I won’t single them out, they’re listed below) met the score’s peculiar musical challenges with real virtuosity considering the strange things, both physical and vocal, they were asked to do. The entire opera consists of recitatives a technique no living composer I know of has mastered.

Adès is a skilled composer and conductor; it’s genius that he seems to lack. It’s very hard to judge a new work on a single listening, so I recorded the broadcast of the prima and listened to the opera several times. It was a chore that I don’t want to repeat. The opera will be broadcast on the Met’s regular Saturday afternoon series on April 18 so if you’ve avoided it throughout 2017, you’ll have one more shot at it next year.

Critics of new works that eventually find an audience are often wrong in their initial negative assessment of major operas. But as far less than 0.1% of all operas ever written are still performed, the odds favor negativity. I suspect that it will be quite a while before New York sees The Exterminating Angel after the conclusion of this run.

 

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL
Thomas Adès/Tom Cairns/Luis Buñuel/Luis Alcoriza

Edmundo De Nobile…….Joseph Kaiser
Lucía De Nobile………Amanda Echalaz
Leticia Maynar……….Audrey Luna
Leonora Palma………..Alice Coote
Silvia De Ávila………Sally Matthews
Francisco De Ávila……Iestyn Davies
Blanca Delgado……….Christine Rice
Alberto Roc………….Rod Gilfry
Beatriz……………..Sophie Bevan
Eduardo……………..David Portillo
Raúl Yebenes…………Frédéric Antoun
Colonel Álvaro Gómez….David Adam Moore
Señor Russell………..Kevin Burdette
Doctor Carlos Conde…..John Tomlinson
Julio……………….Christian Van Horn
Lucas……………….John Irvin
Enrique……………..Ian Koziara
Pablo……………….Paul Corona
Meni………………..Mary Dunleavy
Camila………………Catherine Cook
Servant……………..Andrea Coleman
Servant……………..Marc Persing
Padre Sansón…………Jeff Mattsey
Yoli………………..Lucas Mann

Ondes Martenot……….Cynthia Miller
Piano……………….Dimitri Dover
Guitar………………Michael Kudirka

Conductor……………Thomas Adès
Production…………..Tom Cairns
Designer…………….Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Designer…….Jon Clark
Production Designer…….Tal Yarden
Choreographer………..Amir Hosseinpour