ADÈS The Exterminating Angel
Screen filming can do a troubled opera like this one a multitude of favours. When I saw Tom Cairns’s production of The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Danish Opera in 2018 I came away convinced that the work wanted to be a dark orchestral fantasy more than an opera. This filming of the same production from the Met suggests it’s really an intimate domestic drama that would be best staged in the round. Either way, getting up-close and personal with Adès’s conglomeration of 15 or so principals, a hundred-odd instrumentalists and squealing ondes martenot is far more easily done via this directorially magnificent filming than in any opera house.
Let alone the Met. If the opera is partly a satire on the opera crowd then this house’s audience isn’t going to enliven the joke. All those self-regarding references to opera and good taste feel just a bit toe-curling when taken at face value (the gag about Americans having lost sight of standards when it comes to formal attire is more or less met with a ‘true, that’). You need to see the opera at least twice to get your head around the many guests who arrive at the dinner party from hell and never leave it. Put the hours in and you have to conclude that most of them are flimsily realised, some are out-and-out caricatures (I don’t think posterity will be kind to the off-the-shelf OCD sufferer Francisco) and the most interesting (Blanca, Leonora, Beatriz and Eduardo) are forced to blossom without much preparation even when the cameras throw us a lifeline.
Adès’s musical drawing of the hosts Lucía and Edmundo shows what he can do, even if there’s nowhere much for them to go. The stratospheric coloratura Leticia gets the work’s last word but, even on this close-recorded, crystalline performance from Audrey Luna, it’s impossible to decipher much of what she sings given its altitude, which is simply un-operatic. She could be inspired by an unhinged Gerald Barry character but has little of the wildness needed to make her outlandish noises into something theatrical.
The most enjoyable moments are those in which this unwieldy tapestry focuses itself on a single point, as during the final chorus and the interludes. And nobody films this stuff as imaginatively as the Met’s team led by Gary Halvorson. One camera tracks through the pit; another creeps through the slips to show you the offstage percussionists and their conductor watching Adès on a monitor; another twists vertically upwards from the hands of Cynthia Millar at her ondes martenot.
That further emphasises the point that the theatre here is predominantly non vocal. At least Adès’s foundations are sure. His use of intervallic tension, patterning and passacaglia and his unlocking of fluency from those rigid structures is thrilling, not least as the work bulges with Lulu-like tragedy. But if the orchestra does the work of the characters, is that opera? Discuss.
Like Figaro and Nixon before it, the work slides towards a series of monologues, which makes for some standout performances. Christine Rice gives Blanca everything, even when not deploying her fruity mezzo. Joseph Kaiser is a commanding presence as the host Edmundo and Amanda Echalaz brings the huffing, puffing Lucía to life with wit and stature. In a cast sweating to annunciate clearly, Iestyn Davies works particularly hard. Alice Coote is great to watch and hear but her character’s cul-de-sac of stereotyped psychotic behaviour crystallises one of the opera’s central problems. In Copenhagen the opera had a conductor other than Adès for the first time. In New York his presence suggests that if anyone can come near to taming the beast, it’s the man who spawned it.