You Can Depart, but You Cannot Leave ; Thomas Ades Has Turned Bunuel's 'Exterminating Angel' into a 3- Act Opera

By Tommasini, Anthony | International New York Times, August 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

You Can Depart, but You Cannot Leave ; Thomas Ades Has Turned Bunuel's 'Exterminating Angel' into a 3- Act Opera


Tommasini, Anthony, International New York Times


Thomas Ades has turned Luis Bunuel's film "The Exterminating Angel" into an audacious three-act opera at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

CORRECTION APPENDED

It takes some daring for a composer to choose a classic film as a subject for an opera. Comparisons are inevitable. But not much intimidates the prodigious British composer Thomas Ades. On Thursday at the Salzburg Festival, Mr. Ades conducted the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and an outstanding cast in the premiere of "The Exterminating Angel," based on the 1962 Luis Bunuel film.

Although Bunuel preferred not to specify the symbolism in his work, this dark fantasy, a macabre comedy, has long been seen as a critique of the elite classes during the Franco years in Spain. A wealthy couple invite some guests to their mansion for an elegant dinner. But after the guests adjourn to the salon, everyone, including the hosts, finds it psychologically, though not physically, impossible to leave the room.

In his opera, Mr. Ades seizes the story and makes it his own, delving into its "underground river of meaning," as he says in an interview in the program. 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.

In his compact 90-minute film, Bunuel maintains a slightly distanced, bizarrely comedic attitude. But Mr. Ades's three-act opera, which lasted two and a half hours, including one intermission, is 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.

The agitated, quickly shifting nature of the music, if not quite comic in the way of Bunuel, has a madcap quality. Still, this is a grim telling of the tale through an exceptionally inventive and audacious score. New Yorkers will get a chance to hear it: It's scheduled for the fall of 2017 at the Metropolitan Opera, where Mr. Ades's previous opera, "The Tempest," played in 2012.

Tom Cairns, the director of the production, also wrote the English libretto in collaboration with Mr. Ades. The set, by Hildegard Bechtler, frames the salon with a rich wood proscenium, suggesting the stage of an opera house (another space whose inhabitants, at least for a period, cannot escape).

The story is essentially the same as in the film, though reducing the number of dinner guests from 17 to 12 involves amalgamating some characters into single roles. When we meet Edmundo and Lucia de Nobile (the tenor Charles Workman and the soprano Amanda Echalaz, both excellent), the aristocratic hosts, they and their guests have returned from a performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor." Their servants begin making excuses for having to leave. Only Julio, the loyal butler (the stalwart bass-baritone Morgan Moody), remains warily on the job. The servants seem to sense that the mansion has become a psychological prison, where these entitled people are literally bound by their bourgeois trappings.

Mr. …

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