We’ve all known dinner parties that went on too long, but rarely with the consequences of the one in Thomas Adès’s new opera, The Exterminating Angel, which has just had its British premiere at Covent Garden after an acclaimed world premiere last year at Salzburg.
Based on the famous 1960s Buñuel film of the same name, it’s a piece that has to stretch a single narrative theme across two hours of music – the idea being that a group of apparently civilised haut-bourgeois swells are trapped by some mysterious force around the dining table for days, weeks, perhaps for ever, in the course of which civility breaks down. Surreal things happen during this entrapment, which is as well because if they didn’t the audience would get as restless as the opera’s characters.
And an achievement of the staging (by Tom Cairns) is that, without the versatility of Buñuel’s changing camera angles to enliven the unchanging presence of a bunch of people in a room, it manages to offer visual variety, using a slow revolve to shift the audience’s perspective of the set.
But it’s the score that really keeps the opera going. Adès, who conducts the piece himself, engages an enormous orchestra with dazzling virtuosity. What’s happening onstage may be domestically small-scale and routine (give or take the odd death), but what happens in the pit is epic to the point of overload in colour and effect, with the unnerving electronic whine of the Ondes Martenot an almost solo-status presence. Somehow Adès steers this juggernaut of sound into the realms of humorous allusion: there are endless references out, to Strauss, Stravinsky, Britten, Bach and their respective sound-worlds (a disordered blast of Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze” accompanies the diners’ hunger-driven efforts to attack some sheep that for no obvious reason trot into the room). But the most telling reference is to Ravel’s La Valse, a score that takes a takes a dance epitomising elegance, civility and high culture, and destroys it. The symbolic relevance is obvious.
With no chorus but a cast of solo roles – taken by stars such as Amanda Echalaz, Anne Sofie von Otter and John Tomlinson, and giving some of them the chance to shine in spot-lit set-piece arias – it plays like the vocal equivalent of a concerto for orchestra. And in some ways it’s a new take on operatic writing, though its significance as such will take time to register. What can certainly be said is that it has immediate impact, a surprising degree of accessibility, and a presence that, alongside George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, thrusts British opera to the forefront of the world stage. In times when we command no leadership politically, that’s some small consolation.
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