by Rachel Beaumont

latest archive about contact

A good time to be an opera lover: The Exterminating Angel at the ROH

The Exterminating Angel
The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
21 April 2017 (general rehearsal)
Amphitheatre E69, staff ticket

The only thing that worries me about The Exterminating Angel is that the demands it places on the opera company who would perform it are so great that it's unlikely, I would think, to have the same runaway success as Written on Skin. That worries me because The Exterminating Angel is an opera I want to see again and again, interpreted by new performers and new stage teams. This is a magnificent work, and it's so exciting to see a premiere I would immediately place among operas I most admire. I've had that once before, with Philip Venables's 4.48 Psychosis – a work on a very different scale that came out only a few years ago. So I'm feeling pretty happy to be an opera lover alive at the moment with these composers around.

I find Adès's The Tempest impressive but I can't say I've ever warmed to it that much. In this sense The Exterminating Angel represents a significant progression in Adès's opera writing that has been well worth the wait. The story of Buñuel's film works supremely well as an opera, or perhaps I should say Tom Cairns has made a supreme libretto from the film. None of the pseudo-Shakespeare that mires The Tempest and Ryan Wigglesworth's The Winter's Tale: this libretto feels like it was always meant to be a libretto, almost like that's what Buñuel had in mind all along. Of course, it might not have worked if Adès hadn't done what he's done, but I think we should really value what Cairns has achieved: the pace never slacks; he draws out poetry and comedy; the concerns of Buñuel's story are amplified and even in some ways clarified. This libretto is both entertainment and art.

Adès gives me the same thrilling sensation as with, say, Wagner or David Foster Wallace or Raphael – oh well, it's a long list – of having no idea of how a person could have thought what he needed to think in order to make the art work what it is. This is perhaps chiefly in orchestration: of course Adès is pretty experienced now in the sounds an orchestra can make but I don't understand how the combinations he uses here could be conceived. I was constantly delighted and surprised. It's tempting to pull out the solo instruments – Adès writes magnificently, ingeniously for the ondes martenot, the guitar and of course the piano – but the use of the entire orchestra was no less inspired (that said, I really should pull out the ondes martenot writing: an incredible display of this instrument's expressive power).

As with The Tempest, Adès writes punishingly for his singers – but The Royal Opera's cast is of such uniform excellence that the music actually flatters them, demonstrating their supreme skill. It is a large cast and they all achieve astonishing things. I love so many of these artists – Christine Rice, Sally Matthews, Anne Sofie von Otter, Iestyn Davies, Ed Lyon and of course Thomas Allen and John Tomlinson – and I should now add Frédéric Antoun and Amanda Echalaz to the list – that I feel Adès has essentially selected my dream cast and shown them all off to their best. Even Charles Workman, whom I've only heard before struggling with Alwa in La Monnaie's Lulu, is remarkable.

It's not all plain sailing. The first two acts I think are better than the third, which is not the ideal way round: the third kind of feels like a Surrealist's box of tricks, with one set piece of bizarrety following another. There are two points in this act where, for my taste, Adès succumbs too much to his predilection for romanticism: the suicidal lovers' duet and the Duchess's lullaby for her absent son touch on saccharine. The weaknesses of the production, directed by Cairns and designed by Hildegard Bechtler, are also all concentrated in the third act. The projected flying hand doesn't really work and neither do the artificial sheep. Much more problematically, the meaning of the ending isn't communicated at all: the music is emphatic on the extension of the incarceration, but if you've not clocked that the ondes martenot represents the exterminating angel, and you haven't seen the film, I think there's no chance that you'd understand what is supposed to have happened. Perhaps this is in part Adès's fault, and he should have allowed the big reveal more time to unfold (or requested more words from Cairns); but I have the feeling that it could work with more explicit support from the production. Then again, I was seeing a rehearsal – perhaps it will work better in a real performance. So there we go: an opera I can't wait to see again.

Post scriptum
So I went to see The Exterminating Angel again on 1 May (Stalls Circle Standing D24, £9) and perhaps unsurprisingly I need to temper the enthusiasm of the above post. This is mainly due to something which is absolutely beyond Adès's control, but I think it still reflects an interesting vulnerability of the piece.

I like the standing places in the Stalls Circle because they're cheap and near and you can see the whole stage and and easily escape at the interval. But they are acoustically dangerous. I watched Die Frau ohne Schatten from there once and whenever the percussion placed in the Stalls Circle by the orchestra were playing, which was often, I could hear nothing other than that percussion. I think this is not what Strauss would have wanted. The effect in The Exterminating Angel was to make the orchestra seem very subdued, and given Adès's orchestra is extremely exciting, this was a problem.

Removing the exciting orchestra also impinged on the other ingredients of what made me so enthusiastic about the opera. While the singers were still all very impressive, without the orchestra's presence Adès's vocal writing sounded less flattering and more cruel; less virtuoso display and more decadent vocal torture.

The libretto was similarly exposed. As others have complained, the characterization is patchy, with some of the cast – particularly Thomas Allen – shamefully under-used. And while I still like what Cairns has done with the screenplay there's no doubting that this is a very straight reading: Roc's relationship with his wife is perfectly normal; Francesco's pills are definitely for his ulcer and are in no way recreational. And then of course Buñuel's story itself is by its very nature obdurate and odd, and it turns out I can find that annoying rather than interesting.

But this, of course, is arguably all to Adès's credit. I thought the opera worked tremendously well when I was in an acoustically favourable position; when I was not, I didn't like it so much. But it's an opera! That's what's supposed to happen! It just seems that Adès's idiom is a little more vulnerable to the dangers of poor acoustics than, say, Wagner's or Puccini's. A weakness of this new age of opera.

No comments yet.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

<< Words cannot express: Thomas Dunford at the Wigmore Hall

Good programming bad programming: Boulez and Debussy at the Southbank Centre >>