The latest Opera from the Met: Live in HD presented through Fathom Events was one I had greatly looked forward to, The Exterminating Angel. It was a brand-new opera filled with the promise of novelty and innovation. I was really excited when I went to the theatre.
When I arrived, I was treated to what those in attendance in New York were also experiencing, unnerving and discordant bells that chimed for a full 10 minutes before the production started. It was ominous and creepy. It made me hopeful that I was about to see something really impactful.
And I did, but probably not in the way it was meant to be impactful. For truly, if someone had designed an opera especially to annoy me, they couldn’t have done better than this. It combined a bunch of things I dearly love – cheesy mid-Century horror films, gorgeous mid-Century couture, and surrealism – then made them cheap and boring.
Let’s start with the story. It’s a retelling of a pretentious mid -Century Spanish surrealist film by Luis Buñuel. We learned during the interview section in intermission that it very much impressed composer Thomas Adès when he was 13. So, like the kid who will someday write the opera version of The Room, he’s showered his time and effort on translating a “work of art” from one format to another.
While this is often successful, Buñuel’s film, heralded as great by the sort of people who think that grotesque and unsatisfying things equal great art, is what it is. Buñuel himself says “The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” Which means the whole thing is a con. He basically made a piece of nonsense and everyone had to acknowledge it was brilliant or he could tell them they were too dumb to understand. This opera is like trying to recreate Dali’s melting clocks as a work of performance art done entirely by flatulent alpacas wearing plumed hats. It’s even more unsatisfying than the original and filled with even more pointlessness and grotesquery.
It sticks very close to the non-plot of the film. A bunch of thoroughly unpleasant people arrive at the home of a wealthy socialite to have a dinner party. The servants are fleeing the house as the guests arrive – for no reason that is ever explained. The guests stand around being horrible and pretentious to the point where you wish the Angel would Exterminate them already and then find themselves unable to leave the room. They stay there for days while one guest dies of an unexplained malady, two lovers commit suicide and clingy siblings, incest. There are also bears, threats of murder, active self-mutilation and lame attempts at witchcraft. None of it is explained and all of it is meaningless and pointless and is happening to people so unpleasant that you don’t care if they live or die. Their suffering bores you.
In 1927, the novelist E.M. Forster gave a series of lectures at Cambridge that were collected into a slim volume called Aspects of the Novel. In it, Forster gives a set of rules about what makes a great story, and the first and LOWEST bar is – making the reader care about what happens next. The same can absolutely be applied to theatre, and The Exterminating Angel violates it almost from the beginning. You don’t care about any of it. The stakes don’t matter because there is not a person on the stage you can care about. I found myself actively wishing they’d all die in a fire before the first half hour was done so that I could leave and would not have to listen to them anymore.
And this while Hildegard Bechtler’s set was perfect, everyone looked glorious in their Mid-century couture she’d designed, and every immensely talented singer was working harder than anyone ever has. Because what they were singing was best described as the auditory equivalent of cats fighting in a bag. The stage was loaded with sopranos singing in English so distorted by the horrid discordant notes they were shrieking at the top of their ranges that you required subtitles to understand what they were saying – not that any of it made sense or mattered at all. It was either innocuous chit chat like at any cocktail party or surrealist nonsense, like someone threw a bunch of poetry in the air and assembled it back together at random. You can thank librettist Tom Cairns, who also directed, for that.
But at the base level opera or anything is meant as a form of human communication, and this was not communicating anything. It was like the Old Gods from H.P. Lovecraft had written an opera designed not for human consumption – like Cthulhu and the Deep Ones were singing for themselves or perhaps to entertain Yog-Sothoth, Hastur, and Nyarlathotep. In fact, that might have been more entertaining. At least there would have been somebody getting eaten as a payoff for their bad decisions.
I’ll give composer Adès this, his orchestration, complete with miniature violins and Ondes Martenot, sounded like the overwrought soundtrack to a Sci Fi or cheesy horror film of the 1950s. I could imagine Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee skulking about up to no good when the orchestra was playing. It would have been cool if it had been a film soundtrack. But over it, with all its dedication to recreating the excesses of Mid-century horror cinema like an opera version of Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe, were the horrible, shrieking vocal lines. It was like listening to a bunch of people do vocal range exercises for three hours only less tuneful. You know the famous shower scene music in Hitchcock’s Psycho? Imagine a soprano singing variations on that for three hours and you know exactly what this opera sounds like. Not to be recommended.
My eye was twitching by the time I left. And it wasn’t that the thing was unnerving or really anything but enraging because it ultimately was so cheap. It was obvious and trite and a mish-mash of other things that were original once but now were all jumbled together into an unpleasant mess by someone who was wowed by something at 13 and spent a lifetime trying to recreate the magic of that moment.
I have to admire that kind of dedication and the obvious love and work put in by composer Adès. Sometimes an homage to your influences works brilliantly, like Spielberg’s homage to 1930s serials with Indiana Jones. And sometimes it ends up like this, a hodge-podge of various sources mashed up into a muddled mess; a boring surrealist film, a horror movie soundtrack, and vocal pyrotechnics for the sake of vocal pyrotechnics equaling something that is less than the sum of its parts.
I pitied the singers, who are splendid and obviously have immense patience for this nonsense. They were badly used and abused by the composer, here, and tried their best. But they are a prime example of how superb singing or acting can’t save bad writing.
As usual, seeing this through Fathom Events was almost the best part. The Met: Live in HD went above and beyond with the interesting commentary, but I should have seen the red flag when the opera was introduced as being interesting because there were live sheep on stage. If that’s your highlight, I suggest the audience flee the opera house (or theatre) at once.
There were also intelligent interviews with singers including Sir John Tomlinson, Alice Coote, Sally Matthews and Iestyn Davies, composer Adès, and Cynthia Millar, the instrumentalist responsible for playing the Ondes Martenot. It was incredible to watch her play it and listen to her explain how she learned. But this is NOT worth the price of sitting through this auditory mess. It’s literally three hours of my life that I won’t be getting back. And I actively resent that.
Photos by Ken Howard: Metropolitan Opera