Friday, November 10, 2017

Shipwreck of the Fighting Spirit

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel
Opening Night U.S. Premiere
Metropolitan Opera
October 26, 2017

The shock of the shipwrecked souls
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Opening night of The Exterminating Angel attracted a younger, more stylish audience than your average evening at the Metropolitan Opera. It was out of the ordinary for other reasons as well. Rather than the usual gentle five-minute warning chimes one is accustomed to hear, as early as seven to ten minutes before start time the loud clanging of more forceful church bells rang not only in the front of the house, but they were still ringing once you took your seat right up to curtain.

They were Luis Buñuel’s signature bells, the ones that punctuate the movie of the same name on which the opera is based. Like good little conformist lambs on our way to church, they herded us in and I noticed that nearly everybody heeded the call more responsively than usual. There was much less dilly-dallying at the bar on the Grand Tier than one would normally see. With as long as five minutes to curtain, very few of us lingered in disbelief in the front of the house wondering what had come over the nearly sold-out crowd. It was just one of the surreal signs that this was not going to be your typical night at the Met.

Like Buñuel's sheep, the public heeds the call of the bells
Photo credit: Criterion Collection film still
The last few years has seen a slew of operas adapted from movies: Breaking the Waves, Brokeback Mountain (which was based on a short story), Cold Mountain (which was adapted from a novel that was in turn inspired by Homer’s Odyssey) just to name a few of the more prominent examples. Now the great Thomas Adès has brought us The Exterminating Angel and to great fanfare at that.

On the whole I found it an extremely stimulating experience. Because it is a movie that I have held dear over all the many years that I have pondered its complexity of meaning and its understated absurdist style, I couldn’t help but think long and hard about the decisions the composer and his collaborator Tom Cairns made in order to bring the film to the operatic stage. On the surface of things it would seem that this adaptation is all too slavish to the original script, but that is not true throughout.

Sputnik chandeliers rise and fall as the guests enter twice
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
In the movie the entourage enters twice, as though the record skipped or an additional take was added to the final cut of the film by accident. Then the host gives the same toast twice once they sit down to dinner. The first toast is warmly received and the guests are attentive. The second toast is completely ignored by the guests who are immersed in their own inane conversations and the host feels slighted. That’s when things start to go downhill. The waiter drops a tray of hors d’oeuvres. One of the guests sits down at the piano and plays a sonata by a fictitious composer named Paradisi and they begin to realize that none of them have the desire to leave anymore. Only once they repeat the scene at the piano will they, days later, be able to break this horrid spell. So the movie is structured around a series of repetitions, and another repetition is the only way out.

The charms of civility, while they last
Photo credit: Criterion Collection film still
Adès’s opera repeats the first and last of these ominous repetitions. The house lights remain on and the Met’s signature Sputnik chandeliers remain lowered during the initial scene, in which the awkward mass exodus of most of the wait staff occurs and the entourage of elite guests enter twice. The house lights dim and the chandeliers above the audience also raise a second time. This was so disorienting that the elderly women sitting behind and beside me all erupted into discombobulated whispers of disarray: “Did they make a mistake?” “What happened?” “Was that in the score or was there a technical error?” I’ve never heard so much live commentary from the crowd that usually shushes anyone who makes a peep, opens a candy or coughs during a performance.

Spin off conversations create a chaotic mess in the score
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Adès’s orchestration is largely atmospheric. It only lends something to the characterization of the various personalities stuck in the house at intervals, and hardly at all in the first act. When it comes to the whacked out sound effects that heighten the sense of chaos, Adès has definitely got it down. However, I can’t help but think that his skill in this regard would be even more effectively deployed if he did so more sparingly, particularly in the initial movements of the opera. If he turned to a whacked out and chaotic soundscape in a more directed way it could be put more expressive ends as opposed to using it as the baseline from which everything else departs.

The mystery of the film lies in part in the gradual (then sudden) deterioration of this group of society’s elite and their genteel haute bourgeois ways. They need to be depicted as refined before they get totally kooky. If they are a bunch of crazies from the get-go then they really don’t have very far to fall.

Leonora fawns over her adored doctor
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote brought a nutty co-dependency to her portrayal of Leonora Palma, who is lustfully absorbed in the salvific presence of her doctor, Carlos Conde, sung by bass Sir John Tomlinson. Doctor Conde’s lines were composed to be delivered almost always in an overly belabored fashion, all… drawn… out… slow.... In the movie the doctor is the grounding voice of reason, who more often than not serves to console and calm the group when they get worked up.

Here Doctor Carlos Conde has been reduced to a slightly loony bon vivant who is given to repeating the same joke, very slowly, as if that would put us off the scent. His recurring joke is one that conflates death and baldness in some kind of metonymy. It must be because when the body decays all that is left is a bald skeleton, no skin, no hair. But that’s not what happens immediately. It was made twice by the doctor, both times musically emphasized, neither of them particularly funny. Nor was this nonsense even present in the original.

The doctor is reduced to a man possessed
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Then the joke about the first man to take off his tuxedo jacket being from the United States was completely buried in the music and the delivery was burdened in a different way. The libretto awkwardly adds the remark that “they have different customs there,” which renders wordy what would otherwise be the punch line, especially played to an audience in America. But instead the score muddles it into near incomprehension. Another missed opportunity.

Which makes me think (time and again) that we are dealing with yet another composer who struggles not only with comic timing but with a sense of humor in music at all. And that is saying a lot. Remember this is the man whose youthful Powder Her Face featured an “aria” for soprano and chamber orchestra that simulated the singer performing fellatio. So that simply cannot be the case.

Lucía de Nobile holds forth on her practical jokes
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Soprano Amanda Echalaz as Lucía de Nobile, the hostess with the mostest for the evening, cast one of the first spells over the dinner party. In the “Ragoût Aria” she sings during her first course prank, the musical accompaniment is that of an unsettling deconstructed waltz, in the manner of Ravel’s La Valse. A variety of waltz rhythms pop up over the course of the opera, which the composer calls the quintessential “invitation to stay” music. A waltz entices the listener not to leave the party, but to stay, to dance another tune, to take another turn on the dance floor. And so what better music to include in a piece that is literally about the impossibility of leaving.

One of the staging decisions that I found disappointing was the flash of lightning that strikes the rear of the stage upon one of their early attempts to leave the salon, as though some external force is compelling them to stay. It’s more effective and mysterious if the conceit is subtle and remains on the psychological level. Heightening the mystery simply with the eerie sound of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument, would have been more than enough to create the effect and get the idea across.

The guests freshen up after their first night together
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Another detail that confused all of the older women in my section was the addition of a bathroom. The closet seemed to contain not only a mirror but a sink and maybe even a toilet. It was unclear why this kind of realism was necessary when the guests go off to “freshen up” after their first night together. My section erupted in whispers when Julio and Raúl work to burst a water main in the floor in the beginning of Act III. “Wasn’t there a bathroom behind that one door before,” the women around me snickered.

The men manage to burst a water main
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Having revisited the movie before attending the opera, I was expecting the opera to take advantage of the wonderful conversational style of the film. The group is constantly broken up into little groups making small talk and saying crazy, symbolic, non-sequitur and important things. It seems like all this would be amazing fodder for a feast of duets and trios and quartets that explore a variety of emotions and ideas and social commentary and symbolism and subtlety (which is not necessarily what opera is known for unless it is emotional – those broad broad strokes of emotion that the greatest operas give us).

Mise en abyme: the self-involved lovers lock themselves in a closet
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Some of the strongest moments in the opera fall into this category, but only in the last third of the show, namely the hallucinations and the love scene in the closet. “Bouquets of lust, I’ll make from your veins,” sang soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor David Portillo as the two star-crossed lovers Beatriz and Eduardo, who in the movie are to be married in a matter of days. Their big time-stopping love duet in the closet featured a brilliant musical conceit. It is driven by a fugue structure. Her voice chases his until they consume each other. Their two lines become one, musically, vocally, sensuously. It is one of the most transcendent moments in the opera.

At first she is like the nymph Echo repeating the words of her beloved Narcissus; only this Echo gets what she wants, along with the dissolution and death she earns in the myth. Narcissus is also a fitting reference for Eduardo (if not most of the rest of the shipwrecked souls in the mansion). So taken is he with himself and his lover that they want to sink farther from the world into their own solipsistic solitude rather than escape back out into the public sphere that most of the party seems to be all too eager to avoid.

Some of the women turn to black magic and sorcery
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
The hallucinations segment of the final act of the opera is full of surprises and it is the moment when the score settles down musically. One of the guests has a dream vision of an almost demonic insect looking dancer. She writhes as though possessed to the sound of a frenetic Spanish guitar. The projected image of an amputated hand makes its way hauntingly across the stage and Señor Alberto Roc levitates in a very dreamlike way across the stage to make some kind of sexual advance on a sleeping Leticia.

How low will they go?
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
In fact, the descent is deeper here. The party sinks even further into disarray than they do in the movie. So much so that the dashing baritone Rod Gilfry ends up in his skivvies relatively early on. And somehow everybody gets visibly soiled in ways that aren’t apparent in the black and white film. We actually see them eat the sacrificial lamb, whereas in the movie they only set about prepping it for slaughter.

At this point, soprano Sally Matthews, in the role of Silvia de Ávila, enters into her own headspace and sings an utterly moving ode to her son. Whether she too is hallucinating or has just lost it all together is unclear. But in any case she cradles the severed head of one of the lambs in her arms as if it were her beloved son, whom we actually see in the crowd scene at about this time. Outside on the street he is goaded to attempt to breach the home in which his mother is held captive. The music on the outside crackles with a different kind of chaos punctuated by the lively sound of castanets.

Silvia cradles a carcass while she pines for her son
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Two of the men in the movie are initiates in the Free Masons. After having identified each other early in the film, they later attempt to use one of the secret mantras to tame the dangerous bear that prowls just beyond the threshold of their prison. The opera drops the Masonic material, and instead adds a more enigmatic Jewish messianic subtext. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the nature of its Zionist references. In the early depths of their collective despair, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, in the role of the chanteuse Blanca Delgado, wistfully croons a version of an old Ladino Jewish folk tune, “Over the sea, show me the way home….” Hers is a melancholic moment, a longing for a time now lost.

A ferocious bear lurks just across the threshold
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Soprano Audrey Luna played the role of Leticia Maynar, the guest of honor of the evening since she is the one who sang Lucia di Lammermoor that very night prior to their little post-opera reception. Ironically the star singer of the characters is the one who has the most trouble articulating. Her vocal lines are all written excruciatingly high in awkwardly staccato rhythms so that she kind of hiccups them out, when she isn’t shrill and screeching and sounding like a ditzy dunce.

Leticia goes into a mystic trance
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Letiticia is the one who has the illumination to reenact the earlier recital portion of their first evening together, before they realized they were stuck. In the context of the opera, it seems to be suggested that only by the power of music are they able to break the spell. And then once they leave the premises, she is the one who sings a sort of apocalyptic hymn of sorts, the setting of an early twelfth-century text by Yehudah Halevi. After invoking Zion, she sings, “Save me from eternal death, shine eternal light” or something to that effect.

The guests finally stagger out of captivity
Photo credit: Ken Howard
They are greeted by the crowds on the street dressed in stylish, brightly colored 1960s street clothes, who have been waiting for the elite coterie to re-emerge from the house. The respective crowds mingle and mix to much rejoicing, but the celebration does not last long.

They are greeted by the crowds on the street
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
It is then Leticia again who cuts the zombie-like festivities short and proceeds to herd them all back across the threshold of another building, into the ark of safety and salvation of which she ominously sings, while they attempt to avoid the military police on the street. “Save me from eternal death, shine eternal light,” she drones on. In Buñuel’s vision, both the elite parlor, in the beginning, and the nave of the church, in the end, are havens of disengagement from the political world.

Leticia herds them back into the ark of salvation with her apocalyptic hymn
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
As in the movie, church bells – the same ones that beckoned us into the theater in the beginning – resound again all around us, only this time the elite and the proletariat retreat together from the public sphere with Leticia as their rather spooked pastor. And then what? We are perhaps to understand that a unique cocktail of fear and complacency has gotten the best of them all, from the upper echelon to the lower. A slightly more inclusive group attempts to save themselves by withdrawing from the ravages of public life, and in the meantime the wild world outside goes to pot.

As expected, Adès gave us a lot to think about and a very tough pill to swallow, if this is indeed what he is after. But I would see it again in a heartbeat.

– Lui

Dinner is served
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Preparation for the slaughter
Photo credit: Criterion Collection

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