Thomas Adès’s “The Exterminating Angel,” based on the classic, darkly comic Luis Buñuel film, comes to the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, Oct. 26, and runs through Nov. 21. Here’s what you need to know about it.
WHY IT MATTERS A new opera from Mr. Adès, more than a decade after “The Tempest” (2004), is an event. At 46, he is one of the most impressive composers of his generation, creating works that are sumptuously savage but not heavy, direct but never simple. His style is eclectic, just right for our postmodern era: References to music history are nestled like Easter eggs in a spiky lawn of dissonant restlessness, a pervasive anxiety that reflects a time defined by polarization and emergency.
“He is, first and foremost, a virtuoso of extremes,” Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker after the premiere of “The Exterminating Angel” at the Salzburg Festival last year. Works like his violin concerto, “Concentric Paths” (2005); “Tevot” (2007); and “Totentanz” (2013) are like ominous organisms, expanding from wary intimacy — as in the gamelan-like sweetness that’s the resting state of “Polaris” (2010) — to crushing grandeur.
And he is the rare composer who understands how to create drama in music, even in wholly instrumental pieces. There’s always a sense of narrative, and it’s always riveting.
As the Met slowly broadens its commitment to new opera, it seems to be going for depth more than breadth, presenting multiple operas by composers it favors, like John Adams, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and now Mr. Adès, who was born in London in 1971. Having performed “The Tempest,” his teeming adaptation of Shakespeare, in 2012, the company signed on to co-produce “The Exterminating Angel.”
WHAT IT’S ABOUT A wealthy couple hosts a dinner party. But when the meal is over, even though there’s no evident physical barrier, everyone finds it mysteriously impossible to leave the room. Days go by; the guests become hungry, dirty and hysterical, eventually turning on one another. (Think “Lord of the Bourgeois Flies.”)
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WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT Buñuel didn’t like to be too specific about his symbolism, but the film, first released in 1962, has often been viewed as a critique of the complacent, complicit Spanish elite during the fascist Franco years.
In his review of the premiere in The New York Times last year, Anthony Tommasini wrote: “In his opera, Mr. Adès 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.”
Our time is, like the Franco era, one in which many have vividly perceived a stagnant elite; the dinner party of “The Exterminating Angel” can be seen in the 21st century as an orgy of the 1 percent. And the sensation of frozenness, of being enmeshed in a crisis from which it’s impossible to withdraw, may well be familiar to anyone who follows the news.
THE OPERA REMAINS CLOSE TO THE FILM After the premiere last year, Mr. Adès told The Times: “We stick fairly closely to the movie in terms of the order of incidents. We stick fairly closely to the final screenplay.”
BUT THERE ARE KEY DIFFERENCES The film’s cool, low-key surrealist dispassion (and absolute absence of music, even though several of the characters are musicians) has been traded out by Mr. Adès for more overt, expressionistic horror. “Even more than the film,” Mr. Ross wrote in The New Yorker, the opera “tilts toward the apocalyptic.”
As Mr. Adès put it: “I amplified some things that in a way are suppressed in the final film,” adding, of Buñuel, that “the acting, with certain exceptions, is quite restrained. With an opera, one’s doing in a way the opposite and bringing out the latent psychological and emotional meaning. The music underlines the power of the feeling.”
So the effect of the opera is grimmer, blunter and less winking. And it takes longer to sing than to talk: A 90-minute film has been expanded to a two-and-a-half-hour opera, even as the number of dinner guests has been reduced to 12, from 17. (They include a prima donna, a pianist, a doctor and a duchess.) This is still an unusually large cast for contemporary opera; the financial exigencies of the art form have generally encouraged smaller forces, but Mr. Adès clearly had different ideas.
WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE Dense. If there is one trait that defines Mr. Adès’s compositional gifts, it’s the ability to energize thickness, to create works that are like Mack trucks with Ferrari agility. Even when his textures are as clotted as mud pits, they’re roiling, volcanic, forward-moving.
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