[From OPERA, October 2016, pp. 1261-64]
Alexander Pereira’s new opera strategy at the Salzburg Festival has not all gone according to plan—not least when it comes to the continuing, appropriately Beckettian wait for György Kurtág’s Endgame. So there must have been something reassuring about the arrival, on time, of Thomas Adès’s second full-scale opera, The Exterminating Angel. The work’s high-profile co-commissioners—Covent Garden, where it’s due this season, the Met and the Royal Danish Opera—will no doubt have breathed a sigh of relief too, especially after some encouraging reports from the first night.
At the second night (August 1) in the Haus für Mozart, it revealed itself, like its predecessor, The Tempest, to be an impressively ambitious, well-crafted piece of work. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, however, Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film hardly seems a suitable subject for the lyric stage. The plot is ambiguous and elusive: a group of aristocrats assemble for dinner after an operatic performance but fail to leave at the appropriate moment. Having adjourned to the drawing room they become trapped there by an unexplained force, the veneer of civility gradually wearing away as basic survival becomes paramount.
Subtly conversational, playfully surreal and with a multitude of characters whose identity is only fleetingly established, the Buñuel certainly isn’t ‘operatic’ in the sense in which film criticism tends to employ the word. But in a programme interview with both Adès and Tom Cairns (who directed and who co-wrote the libretto in collaboration with the composer), the composer seems to relish precisely the challenges it poses, openly acknowledging the fact that the film doesn’t follow a standard operatic trajectory: ‘Every piece of music is looking for an exit,’ he says, ‘and the fun thing in this opera is that the characters are looking for an exit the whole time but keep coming back into the same room.’
The score is undeniably brilliant, the composer having been drawn, magpie-like, to some of the most enticing influences of the last musical century and a half—the Viennese Strausses, Bartók, Debussy, Schoenberg, Britten, Piazzolla, to name but a few. He employs them either earnestly, with haunting, disorienting twists, or, in the case of the Strausses, as parody. The opera’s three acts (the first two tied together by a powerful martial interlude) are woven together with dizzying compositional skill. The orchestration, through which the elastic sound of the ondes Martenot winds itself mysteriously, swings between the utmost refinement and almost shocking rawness. With Adès himself conducting, the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien played with often exhilarating commitment and skill.
The libretto distils the film’s screenplay effectively, and the drama is weighted towards a third act that builds up a real head of steam, its final thunderous passacaglia offering a powerful conclusion, as well the apotheosis of something we sense throughout: the music exerting its own force, dragging the words with it, often excitingly but also frequently at the expense of their audibility. Cairns’s production (designed by Hildegard Bechtler) offers a timeless contemporary aesthetic, with chic costumes and a single set consisting of a wooden revolving arch, half-suggesting a proscenium and representing the threshold between the guests’ captivity and freedom.
The large cast was impressive, running the gamut from Audrey Luna’s stratospheric Leticia (very much a reprise of her Tempest Ariel) to John Tomlinson’s gruff Doctor—a marked contrast in characterization, incidentally, to the suave, calm equivalent in the film. Anne Sofie von Otter stood out for her portrayal of Leonora, a tragic, desperate patient of the Doctor’s, and Thomas Allen brought the rakish charm of a great Don Giovanni to his portrayal of the oversexed conductor Alberto Roc. Iestyn Davies was excellent as the impetuous Francisco de Ávila, and Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan were ardent as the tragic young couple, Eduardo and Beatriz. Charles Workman dealt admirably with the tortuous lines Adès gives to the host, Edmundo de Nobile, while Amanda Echalaz (as his wife Lucía) and Sally Matthews (as Silvia de Ávila) brought bright, shining tone to their roles, but were guilty of some very poor diction (not, admittedly, helped by Adès’s writing).
One of the most touching performances came from Christine Rice, as Blanca, who is given two of the score’s highlights. In Act 1, she plays (or mimes playing) a hauntingly wonky piano arrangement of a Ladino song. In the second act, she has one of the few lyrical interludes in which a character is given time to express herself, a gentle and lightly accompanied aria based on Chiam Bialik’s poem ‘Over the sea’. More lyrical respite comes in the form of Leticia’s Act 3 aria, which holds up the action after she has worked out how the guests are to effect their escape.
In isolation these are touching and memorable moments. But they also underline what seems to me a major problem with the work. They represent possibly the most significant additions and departures from the Buñuel original as well as, it seems, an attempt to bolster the opera’s status as opera. Their inclusion, however, only emphasizes the fact that so little of the rest of the work makes a compelling case for being opera, least of all full-scale opera as we have here. Undoubtedly Adès imbues the material with a new tragic grandeur, but he never finds a successful equivalent to the laconic, louche chitchat of Buñuel’s characters, which is surely better suited to chamber opera treatment à la Powder her Face, opting instead for vocal writing that often seems resolutely ungrateful, unnatural, occasionally almost arbitrary, even, and which repeatedly struggles to assert itself against the full orchestra.
Adès is too smart a composer for this not to be a deliberate strategy, perhaps aiming at a productive friction against our expectations of the natural rhythm of the language, but its benefits in the theatre seem minimal. Nor is there any getting away from the fact that live theatre can’t really do what a film director’s camera can in pointing us towards minor details of behaviour, towards telling looks and glances, or to apparently innocuous objects that later gain significance. Where Buñuel is able to communicate with whispers and nods, Adès and Cairns have too often to resort to shouting and gesticulating—and I don’t mean that entirely metaphorically.
The Exterminating Angel is no doubt a serious, fascinating piece of work, and ultimately packs a powerful punch, but we’ll have to wait and see how it fares on the even bigger stages it moves to next, and whether it retains a place in the repertory.
After seeing Alvis Hermanis’s dismal new production of Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae (at the Grosses Festpielhaus, July 31) I found myself wondering whether Strauss’s penultimate opera deserves even its occasional airings. Salzburg obviously feels a special affinity with Danae, whose 1944 premiere there was cancelled after the Nazi declaration of Total War (as a concession to the composer, it was allowed to proceed as far as the dress rehearsal). The premiere did finally take place a decade later, and the opera was subsequently revived at the festival in 2002. For his new production, however, Hermanis shows an almost perverse disregard for this history, stating in an interview that his aim ‘was simply to tell a musically and visually beautiful fairy tale’.
Admittedly, he’s probably not far from the mark in saying that Danae ‘belongs to the aesthetic and mentality of Jugendstil, where the oriental-decorative and folklore meet modernity’, but there was no sense of that meeting with modernity in his production, which in its unreconstructed pursuit of the ‘oriental-decorative’ simply reduced Jugendstil to kitsch. The gentle seriousness of the piece and its all too politically relevant message regarding the pursuit of human love instead of untold wealth were lost in a riot of oversized comedy turbans and orientalist clichés, apparently employed without the slightest sense of irony. There was a real donkey in the final act (which elicited some quiet giggles from the first-night audience), a life-size white elephant to deliver Jupiter, not to mention a troupe of almost omnipresent female dancers, appearing in golden catsuits and a variety of other costumes that referenced everything from belly-dancer tassles to hijab and niqab (the choreography was by Alla Sigalova, the costumes by Juozas Statkevičius). The whole thing seemed to be pitched somewhere between L’italiana in Algeri and Las Vegas.
With such concentration on the peripherals, Hermanis seemed to be little concerned with the characters at the centre of the drama. Krassimira Stoyanova’s Danae remained a somewhat neutral presence throughout. She sang the tortuous role with remarkable security and control, but her tone—always a little covered and somewhat backward in the throat—lacks the penetration and brilliance this part surely calls for. As Jupiter, Tomasz Konieczny was similarly admirable in terms of stamina, but he is far from vocally ideal, his grainy voice, with its slightly snarly default timbre, lacking Heldenbariton ring and authority. Gerhard Siegel was a robust character-tenor Midas, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Norbert Ernst vivid as, respectively, Pollux and Merkur.
The principal pleasure was probably hearing the score handled with impressive virtuosity by the Vienna Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst. But even that was a source of modified rapture: it was only really in the final half-hour that the conductor introduced warmth and tenderness into his reading; until then much had seemed to be on luxurious cruise control, the sound rarely dipping below forte, the golden shards of Strauss’s writing more abrasive than seductive. And too many of the score’s highlights—and moments such as Danae’s awakening in Act 2 are as fine as anything the composer wrote—passed for nothing in the context. With a director and production that seemed to care so little about the work, and showed even less interest in understanding it, this was a missed opportunity and a major setback to Danae’s cause.