Dark ‘Exterminating Angel’ to arrive at arts center

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Photo above: Members of the cast perform in Thomas Ades’s opera, “The Exterminating Angel.” Photo courtesy of the USCB Center for the Arts.

By Alan Schuster

Taking into consideration that British composer Thomas Ades’s opera had its world premiere at the Salzburg Festival in July 2016, any previews of it might best be drawn from a few reviews by those who actually attended it. 

And so, what follows is based largely on comments made by three prominent music critics. They are Anthony Tommasini, N.Y. Times; Mark Swed, L.A. Times; and Alex Ross, The New Yorker.

But first, some background. “The Exterminating Angel” is based on a 1962 Spanish film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. It’s been defined as a “dark fantasy and macabre comedy … in which a wealthy couple invite some guests to their mansion for an elegant dinner after attending an opera, Lucia di Lammermoor. After the dinner, the guests adjourn to a salon where everyone, including the hosts, find it psychologically, though not physically, impossible to the leave the room.  

The New York Times said, “His powerful score reveals the harrowing absurdity of the situation, as the guests become hungry, dirty and hostile. As the days go by, they turn upon one another with accusatory hysteria, fired by the composer’s determination to expose what he sees as the deteriorating psyches of these privileged people. 

The music pulses with searing power, frenetic breathlessness and an astringent harmonic language spiked with thick, piercing chords, though pensive, dreamy episodes provide welcome relief. Still, this is a grim telling of the tale through an exceptionally inventive and audacious score … tilting toward the apocalyptic.”

The L.A. Times said, “’Exterminating Angel’ is an opera of decadence quickly decaying. And we understand it through musical decays, not just notes fading away. Whole musical forms, such as the waltz or the chaconne, fall apart just as the dinner party does. If there is a method to all the musical madness, it is hysteria raised to exhilarating new heights.” 

As in the film, there are sheep on the stage, three live ones grazing as the audience walks in. Bells are ringing. The opera is madcap, with the servants’ exits and dizzying greetings of “enchanted” in complex ensembles nearly impossible to contrapuntally untangle. In the opera house, the gesture becomes radically enhanced and potentially dangerous. 

The New Yorker said, “Thomas Adès is as compelling as any contemporary practitioner of his art because he is, first and foremost, a virtuoso of extremes. He is a refined technician, with a skilled performer’s reverence for tradition, yet he has no fear of unleashing brutal sounds on the edge of chaos. Although he makes liberal use of tonal harmony — including opulent, late-Romantic gestures, for which mainstream audiences profess to be starved — he subjects that material to shattering pressure. He conjures both the vanished past and the ephemeral present: waltzes in a crumbling ballroom, pounding beats in a pop arena.” 

And finally, this brief comment from the Huffington Post: “The Metropolitan Opera brought Thomas Ades’ ‘The Exterminating Angel’ to the stage last night in a spectacular American premiere of one of the most anticipated openings of a new opera in years, and drew a standing ovation from the composer’s devoted fans. With a cast of dozens and a sweeping modernistic score conducted by the composer, the opera  has been awaited with such high expectations that its arrival has gained the status of a major cultural event in New York’s music world.” 

Most prominent in the cast will be soprano Audrey Luna, who made a vivid impression as Ariel in Ades’s “The Tempest” which was a Saturday live broadcast at the Met in 2013. Opera News singled her out as “having power and a blazing coloratura facility that most lyric sopranos can only dream of.” 

The next Met opera will be Puccini’s “Tosca” on Saturday, Jan 27, 2018.

Tickets for all opera presentations are now available. All seats are general admission. Tickets are $20 for adults; $18 for OLLI members, and $10 for students. The box office opens at noon.  

If you go

Thomas Ades’s opera, “The Exterminating Angel,” will be broadcast live in HD from the Met at 12:55 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at the USCB Center for the Arts.

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