Finally! I got to see the much-talked about opera The Exterminating Angel at the Covent Garden, and I am glad I managed to see it, even if it was the last performance of the Royal Opera House‘s run. It premiered at the Salzburg Festival in July 2016, and, as of last Sunday, has been awarded the World Premiere Award at the Opera Awards 2017.
Composed and conducted by Thomas Adès, it is based on the 1962 surrealist film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel. I entered the auditorium not knowing what to expect, but it was highly recommended by many, including non-opera aficionados. My desire to see the opera grew and with the best seats already taken, I waited for the Friday Rush tickets to save me. I managed to get a high-up auditorium ticket for just £24.00, and I wasn’t complaining.
Going in with no background knowledge on Buñuel’s film or the composer’s intention, I hoped that the opera would tell me why a group of 12 gentlemen and glamourous socialists were stuck in a room they could not, for no ‘visible’ reason, leave. By the end of the opera, whatever meaning I was searching for didn’t seem to matter. Adès’s eclectically mesmerising music did most of the talking.
Think William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies, a richer version of reality TV show Big Brother, or Agatha Christie’s book And Then There Were None. What these texts have in common is the despairing and ominous tension that arises from placing these fictional characters together in a limiting and isolated space. Whether it’s a deserted island or a mansion off the coast of Devon, the writing is meant to engage the audience and make them think of the human condition and humanity in its weakest form. Similarly, the dark suspense and mystery is strong in Adès’s opera, as well.
The orchestra is vast with Wagner tubas, an ondes martenot, a whip, a washboard, some saucepans and an anvil, to name a few. The score is a collective of many genres including choral singing, Spanish music, and orchestral symphony. Although the opera is called The Exterminating Angel, there’s some strange, eerie music that will have you looking for the supernatural, like UFOs or the rise of Frankenstein, and not the graveyard type weeping angels from Doctor Who.
As for the cast, it is the cute sheep, the resilient chorus singers, strong soloists, and a brief encounter with a walking bear, which stood out the most for the opera’s staging. With Tom Cairns’s clever directing and Hildegard Bechtler’s 1960s set design involving a wooden arch, signifying an invisible time wrap bubble separating the characters from the world outside of the four walls, the characters unravel gradually before the audience, revealing their inner selves as the opera goes on.
Admittedly, in the first 10 minutes I wasn’t sure. Sang in English, I recalled the Prologue scene of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos where artists and musicians of two opera companies attend a dinner at the mansion of the richest man in Vienna. The scene leads on to a quarrel between two different operas, which is a comedic piece of opera writing. The same can be said here for Thomas Adès’s opera where the uncertainty of the night looms and the whereabouts of the servants becomes unclear. It’s an operatic farce.
All 12 characters have their own kinks and peculiarities. Out of the shadows and into the light, a closer inspection of them can be found in the second and third act, where our guests are no longer the same people who initially entered the room. The singing is sublime and finely executed by a super league cast.
The diva of all divas is sung by Audrey Luna as Leticia with her unbelievably high register, which may not be favourable to everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it. Sally Matthews sang a beautiful lullaby to her character’s son. Iestyn Davies performs as the agitated incestuous sibling, shuffling across the room looking for his pills to soothe his stomach ulcerations and complaining about the lack of coffee spoons in the room.
Amanda Echalaz and Charles Workman work well together as the party’s hosts and Anne Sofie von Otter sings heroically as dying Leonora. Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan also sung a stunning duet as the doomed young lovers, Eduardo and Beatriz, in a sultry and intimate scene. Great vocal talents also came from Thomas Allen, John Tomlinson and Sten Byriel.
With the funny coupling, the debauchery, the lavish music and the crazy characters, I was most certainly sucked in and emotionally engrossed in the opera by the end of it. Even now (24 hours later,) I still can’t put my finger on why the guests were stuck in the room and in many ways that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much. The mystery, inventive music and those cute, little sheep.