November 18, 2017

My take on Thomas Adès's "The Exterminating Angel"

View of the screen at the Hampton VA AMC 24
It's a crisp fall afternoon in Newport News Virginia. No housework or football or hiking with Joy the Friendly Beagle this afternoon; I plunked down my $24.50 at a local Cineplex to see Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel in a live HD transmission from the Metropolitan Opera.

I have never seen the Luis Buñuel film on which the opera is based, though I went so far as to read a few reviews of it. Roger Ebert's 1968 review was especially helpful in conveying the surreal elements of Buñuel's vision. On the other hand, I mostly stayed away from reviews of the opera, wishing to let the music and the performances come at me without any pre-conceptions.

But yes, I had heard about that high A... I guess it's a good thing when late-night comics (Seth Meyers, in this case) talk about opera sopranos and the notes they sing.

The emitter (emittress?) of said high A, of course, is the brilliant coloratura Audrey Luna. She knocked me OUT with her sassy, beautifully sung Zerbinetta in Virginia Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos in 2014. Nominally "friends" on Facebook, it's been fun to watch her career really take off in a big way.

So I was curious to see Ms. Luna do a real "star turn" on the Met stage, but even more curious to see if the opera would strike me as the sensational triumph it's been declared in the press.

SO: my thoughts.

My first action upon getting back home was to open my laptop and tweet a question to Damon Lindelof.

Lindelof, you'll recall, was one of the creators and producers of the TV series Lost. (No, by the way: the final episode didn't bother me that much. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. It was a very fun show.)

I tweeted him to ask if, just possibly, Lost was also based on The Exterminating Angel. Seeing the operatic version really brought to mind several elements of the show.
  • Both the opera and the series feature a large ensemble cast of individuals who are trapped; mysteriously unable to leave the place in which they find themselves.
  • The supernatural elements of both are remarkably similar! Wasn't there a random bear in Lost? Well, that bear got himself another gig in the opera. Some sheep also do cameos.
  • In both, civilized people are more or less deconstructed, devolving to mental instability or being reduced to primitive survival skills. Instead of foraging and hunting on a tropical island for provisions, the men in Angel hammer through the floor to create a fountain of cold water from the water pipes; later they slaughter and cook a sheep.
  • The endings of both Lost and Angel, while enigmatic, both suggest that the characters are dead, though the outlook for the opera folk is assuredly bleaker, lacking the warm-fuzzy aspect of a family reunion on their way to Heaven in Lost.
Commonality with Lindelof's mystery island aside, I found Angel to be a very engaging piece of theater. It shares an advantage enjoyed by Philip Glass's Orphée; namely, a superior screenplay as source material.

The only challenging aspect of Adès’s musical language is in his approach to vocal writing. ALL the principals sing continuously in the upper regions of their ranges. And when I say "upper", ..... I mean UPPER! It's not just Ms. Luna who is called upon to handle a satanically difficult tessitura; it's everyone on stage, even the boy soprano outside the mansion who peeps out repeated high notes calling for his mother. It would seem to be a cruel and unusual task for the artists, though the ones interviewed at intermission gamely avowed that, under the composer's coaching, they could manage it. In fact, none of them seemed to this listener to be tiring towards the end. Everyone projected enough of the illusion of effortlessness to prevent the afternoon from becoming trying, as it certainly could be with lesser talent. (I recall seeing the HD transmission of Glass's Satyagraha years ago. In that performance, the artists really struggled with a challenging tessitura, enough to leave me feeling drained with empathetic weariness by the end.)

A few thoughts on this.

While at first, the seeming randomness of the high-flying vocal writing worried me ("Oh, THIS is gonna get old"), I warmed to it as the drama unfolded. Like all good operatic composers, Adès writes music that informs the listener; in this case, the over-the-top vocal histrionics succeed in depicting the pathologies of the characters, as well as the intense claustrophobia of their joint predicament.

It worked.

HOWEVER, while I was engaged, entertained, and "into" the drama (I truly wanted to know how it would end!), I'm not sure that the piece will reward repeated hearings, especially if audio only, without the staging and visual effects.

That many soprano voices singing at their stratospheric limits all the time, at the expense of the intelligibility of the lyrics, is tiring on the ear. I also wonder, because I have no idea, how many living sopranos could navigate the punishing role of Leticia, which was written with Ms. Luna's instrument in mind. There may be more Isoldes and Turandots walking the earth today than potential Leticias. This role makes Zerbinetta sound like Zerlina. Hoo-boy!

I gives high marks to the orchestration; the variety and aptness of the orchestral colors Adès has at his command is a key element to the powerful effect of his opera. Nothing but praise; he's a master with a master's instinct for narrating the action via instrumental music.

I'm glad I went. I'm glad my ears adjusted to the vocal writing enough to allow me to appreciate the composer's achievement.

Would I want to see it again? Maybe. Not for a while, though. Now I want to see the film!

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