Existential crisis is no recent phenomenon and was hardly more so fifty-five years ago when Luis Buñuel released El angel exterminador, his stinging attack on bourgeois mores which set the tone for a generation’s worth of ever more scabrous films about the ‘establishment’ real and imagined. Refashioning this for the present, Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns have rendered the scenario from a vantage point where absolute notions have been superseded by a more ambivalent take on what constitutes freedom of action in a divisive and frequently alienated environment.
Musically the opera follows on audibly from Adès’s earlier stage-works in resorting to vocal extremes almost as a means of parodying rather than enhancing intense emotion, yet there is little that cannot be justified by its immediate context and it helps when Cairns’s text is focussed theatrically, yet rhythmically and syntactically subtle, to a degree matched by few recent English librettos. Instrumentally, Adès is mindful to balance his coups de théâtre with a concern for dramatic continuity to confirm this as a mature and assured undertaking.
Cairns’s staging avoids any overt sensationalism in favour of incremental change and strategic surprise. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets have a stark immediacy which never impedes stage action, not least the (sometimes revolving) proscenium arch that defines the protagonists’ separation from the outside world to an increasingly tangible degree. Jon Clark’s lighting reinforces this remove in its graphic division of the stage-space, aided by inventive video elements from Tal Yarden and choreography by Amir Hosseinpour as fluid or static as the stage-action requires.
In an ensemble opera with most of the cast present for most of the time, it may be invidious to single out individual performers. Yet the parts for Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Allen are superbly geared for voices no longer at their freshest, with those for the younger female singers precisely judged in their timbral and expressive contrasts. A histrionic role for Iestyn Davies aside, the male voices are less distinctive in terms of character, but John Tomlinson’s role as a vocal and dramatic anchor brings rationality to the most heightened confrontations.
Adès summons a virtuosic response from the Royal Opera House orchestra, not least in the drum-dominated interlude between the first two Acts. Elsewhere, the ondes Martenot gives a Rózsa-like unreality to proceedings and a guitar provides suavity to the opera-singer’s set-piece. Echoes and allusions abound, yet there is nothing facile or self-conscious about the outcome; rather these serve to open-out Adès’s means of expression yet without drawing attention to themselves in any hollow or superficial manner – another indication of lessons well-learned.
The question remains as to whether Adès and Cairns’s modification of Buñuel’s ending can provide a comparable revelation. A first encounter suggests that, for all the climactic import of what is seen and heard, the task of securing a conceptual equivalent in an ostensibly more sophisticated yet cynical age has not quite been surmounted. For all that, The Exterminating Angel makes a powerful impact and leaves a disquieting impression. At a time when neither old solutions nor easy answers seem tenable, this is as much as could reasonably be expected.
- Further performances on April 27 and May 1, 3, 6 & 8
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk
- Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday May 27