In Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s short story “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” a married couple comes upon an “angel” stranded in their back yard and, unsure of how to act, imprison it in their chicken coop. When the village priest comes to inspect, he warns the couple that the Devil has “the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary” and the Angel might be one of these tricks. If this doesn’t describe how Thomas Adès has treated Luis Buñuel’s satirical, claustrophobic The Exterminating Angel, then I don’t know what does. A fantastical Franco-era parable about a group of aristocrats who find themselves inexplicably unable to leave the parlor to which they’ve retired after dinner, Adès not only doesn’t improve on or enhance the movie, clips the story’s wings by smudging out its supernatural ephemerality, misinterpreting its brittle satire, and relying on musical gimmickry. Sounds like carnival tricks to me.
This isn’t to say that Adès’ opulent, savage, dynamically varied music isn’t full of arresting moments, innovative uses of the orchestra, and wide-ranging vocal writing, from the jaggedly acrobatic to the cloyingly lyrical. In fact, the evening didn’t once drag from a musical standpoint and the drama was well-paced. But it does mean that instead of an opera, a story told through music, Adès opted to forsake the satire in Buñuel’s film for its darkness and create a bombastically underscored, often overstated, overly-serious play pushed forward by Tom Cairns’s highly literal English libretto (and what a missed opportunity for a Spanish-language opera). And considering the collection of gimmicks and curiosities employed (violins 1/32 the size of normal ones! a countertenor! a guitar solo! a woman’s second note is a stratospheric high A!), all of which seem intended to evoke atmosphere, it’s ambitious scale seems fit-to-size with the deep pockets of the venues that commissioned it (The Met, The Salzburg Festival, and the Royal Opera House).
Though the opera may be uneven, the Met gathered an admirable team to give it its American premiere. Of the numerous party guests, Christine Rice was a rich-voiced Blanca and Sophie Bevan and David Portillo gave pliant, confident lyricism to the music of the young lovers Eduardo and Beatriz. They were complemented by the melodious bass of Sir John Tomlinson and assertive flexibility of Joseph Kaiser’s tenor as Doctor Conde and Edmundo de Nobile.
Conversely, the brutal, irregular leaps between notes in the music steered Amanda Echalaz towards the shrieky side of her raspy soprano as the hostess Lucía de Nobile, but little compared to Audrey Luna’s shrill, unintelligible caricature of an opera singer, Leticia Maynar. And though Iestyn Davies‘s celestial countertenor was well-matched to the mood of the story, though he lacked the declamatory force his music invites as the dinner party devolves. Tom Cairns’ production makes ample use of the Met’s legendary turntable and keeps the blocking as realistic as possible in Tal Yarden’s inevitably awkward living room set. Hildegard Bechtler’s costumes, though, are unabashed 60’s glamour for the party guests and deteriorate nicely as the show progresses.
Thomas Adès leads his own score with an emphasis on highlighting the unique, extensive orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra delivers, as always, especially when filled out with such gifted players as Cynthia Millar on the eerie Ondes Martenot and Michael Kudirka on guitar. In their small appearances, the Met Chorus does, too.
Despite Angel‘s shortcomings, the Met deserves praise for presenting new works, and especially ones that stimulate discussion the way that Angel did. But as a cohesive, effective opera, this angel might be better left in the chicken coop.
Photos: Ken Howard