Poster for Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, complete with sheep (from Wikipedia, fair use)
This past season the opera production that most attracted my curiosity was The Exterminating Angel, the third opera composed by Thomas Adès with the ambitious goal of basing it on the film of the same name by Luis Buñuel. I first encountered Buñuel’s work during my student days in the Sixties; and, by the time I received my doctorate, I had become almost obsessed with seizing every opportunity to attend a screening of one of his films. I even remember that my first encounter with The Milky Way took place in Haifa, when I was teaching at the Technion, at the city’s closest approximation to an “art house” cinema. To this day I regard that film as the most absurdist perspective on Catholicism I have ever encountered.
I was still a student when I saw The Exterminating Angel for the first time. It was presented by a student film society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We in the audience saw it in the lecture hall that I associate with freshman chemistry, and it seems as if everyone there bought into the sharp-edged humor of the script. The setting was a dinner party of a very elite group, all of whom fancy themselves as intellectuals but cannot engage in conversation that rises above the level of inanity. The plot kicks in, so to speak, when, at the end of the evening, some intangible and unnamable force prevents each of the guests from leaving to return home. As the film progresses, we observe the deterioration of all signs of gentility until one of the guests suggests that they resume the positions they had after dinner and reproduce the conversation from that time. Sure enough, all are “liberated;” and give thanks to God by attending a Te Deum service (Tosca, anyone?) at the cathedral. At the end of the service, they discover that now they cannot leave the cathedral, while a riot erupts outside.
When I first learned that Adès had used this film as the source for his third opera, I was skeptical. This was one of those cases where the film was so much more than its underlying scenario. Buñuel always knew how to conjure up rich images; but he really went over the top in this case, particularly when he added sheep (lambs of God?) to the mix. However, the film also appealed to my sense of play: It was clear that it was rich in symbolism; but it was as if Buñuel had left the interpretation of each of the symbols as “an exercise for the reader.”
The opera was composed on a joint commission by the Salzburg Festival (where it was first performed on July 28, 2016), the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (first performed there on April 24, 2017), and the Metropolitan Opera (providing the United States premiere on October 26, 2017). It was also selected for the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series for live simulcast to movie theaters on November 18, 2017. That simulcast was recorded for subsequent broadcast on the PBS Great Performances at the Met series; and on April 1 (which I found to be a delightful coincidence) I copied its first broadcast in San Francisco to save in my xfinity cloud storage space. I ended up watching it in two segments taking the intermission as my point of interruption, and I completed my viewing this morning.
My primary impression was that much of the opera reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the film, but I came away with the sense that Adès had tried to find a musical approach to Buñuel’s sharpest edges without every quite meeting his goal. The bottom line was that this was a film in which everything clicked together to provide a coherent and entertaining whole: plot, images, dialog, and an overall sense of the flow of the narrative. Adès’ librettist Tom Cairns’ approach to plot was definitely capable enough to establish the narrative even for those unfamiliar with the film. The images, which included sets and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler and video by Tal Yarden, departed from Buñuel but definitely served the narrative as effectively. However, both the specifics of the dialog and that sense of flow felt more labored in the opera setting than it had on the screen.
Much of that labored sense, however, may have been the result of Adès rhetorical approach to the score. I know his second opera, The Tempest, only through the performance of excerpts conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado during his visit to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony in October of 2013. That concert provided me with my first exposure to soprano Audrey Luna, whose upper register is, to say the least, stratospheric. Adès had composed the role of Ariel for her in The Tempest, and her delivery was chillingly unreal. Luna sang the role of the opera singer Leticia (called, by the other guests, “the Valkyrie”); and, according to a New York Times article by Zachary Woolfe, she now holds the record for a note so high (A above high C) that “it has never been sung in the 137-year history of the Metropolitan Opera.”
One way of approaching the score is to assume that Adès decided to work with provocative sonorities as a substitute for Buñuel’s lexicon of provocative images. Almost as important as the extremes of Luna’s soprano part was his use of an ondes martenot played by Cynthia Millar (who also played it at both Salzburg and Covent Garden). Indeed, as video versions go, I have to confess that I was often more drawn to the overhead shots of Millar’s playing than I was by what was happening on stage. At the very least I came away with the impression that recent technologies have made the ondes martenot a more “cooperative” instrument than earlier models had been, allowing Adès to take it in directions that would not have been risked by earlier composers. Furthermore, if his ondes sonorities were not scary enough, the six perfectly synchronized snare drums that dominated one of the instrumental interludes definitely wrenched the guts.
Nevertheless, one of the most salient impressions of the film was Buñuel’s playful attitude. He could get a bit nasty in his play from time to time; but, for the most part, he knew how to get his viewers to laugh with him at the absurdity of his characters and the situation that overcame them. Adès’ score, on the other hand, is, for the most part, deadly serious. Yes, there are times when he cracks a smile or two; and some of the camera shots of his conducting even remind us when those times are. The most memorable of those occasions comes when the sheep in the film appear on the stage during the opera’s third act, to be introduced by an off-the-wall account of the “Sheep may safely graze” aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 208 secular cantata that was definitely laugh-out-loud funny.
With my viewing experience still comfortably lodged in short-term memory, I would have to say that I came away with no great craving to see this opera a second time; but it did leave me “hungry” for a chance to see the Buñuel film again.