Roughly once a decade for the past quarter-century, Thomas Adès has lobbed an opera into the world with the punctilious finesse and incandescent repercussion of a terrorist smashing through the fourth window right of centre with a hand-crafted bomb. And, I’m idly going to speculate, with something of the same desire to puncture the ease of the privileged classes. Sadly I can only guess what the first two – Powder Her Face (1995) and The Tempest (2004) – were up to: I saw neither, partly because I was mildly irritated by, or perhaps jealous of, his wunderkind reputation (he was only 24 when Powder Her Face was first staged, ffs, and to be honest the ongoing media tizzle that it contained a fellatio scene was a cold-water turn-off), partly because I wasn’t necessarily in a position to bargain my way in and opera tickets, as we know, can be beastly expensive, especially if you want to see more than a couple of square feet of the stage.
From the vantage of my balcony seat it’s possible to scrutinise Adès himself on the conductor’s podium and notice how, every so often, his left hand will form devil’s horns to communicate a particularly dramatic intention. For those about to rock the establishment, I salute you.
On the day I sat down to write this, I read a comparative essay on criticism in Latvia pre- and post- the collapse of the Soviet Union (do your worst, by all means), so I’m mildly wary of projecting my own politics here, but at the heart of The Exterminating Angel is a warning and an exhortation: the pitchforks are coming, and not before time. It begins with a bell that rings throughout the building, chasing you up stairs and even into the toilet cubicles, insistent, penetrating, relentless, grave. It is the solemn bell that clangs in ancient dust-crumble town squares when a great patriarch dies; the intimidating bell that warns people to conform or suffer the consequences.
Or it’s just a dinner bell, summoning the eminent and chi-chi guests of Edmundo, Marques de Nobile to a little post-opera supper to celebrate a consummate performance by Leticia as Lucia di Lammermoor – although, the others joke behind her back, she’s less virgin bride than Valkyrie. Both Tom Cairns’ libretto and Adès’ music are liberally scattered with references to other operas, other musics, loving quotation and sly in-jokes that, after the bell itself, draw everyone in the building into the web of the group on stage. Which is an intriguing proposition considering just how sticky and inescapable that web soon proves to be.
Based on a 1962 film by Luis Buñuel, The Exterminating Angel locks the party guests into the dining room and throws away the key. If indeed there is a key: one is mentioned in the third act, in reference to the Kaballah, but by this stage exhaustion and anxiety have created a hallucinogenic delirium that means characters float, a disembodied hand clambers across the wall, and almost nothing makes sense. There is ominous physical architecture, a monolithic arch that towers over them, revolving slowly but never allowing egress: not because the way is physically barred – unless you count the occasional flash of light that knocks characters back off their feet – but because every time they approach it their bodies lose all volition. Really their entrapment is a kind of hypnosis: a collective delusion that might well bear the name privilege.
It’s glorious how every detail of the opera exposes and critiques that privilege. It’s in the notes that Adès gives Letitia (performed with glorious hauteur by Audrey Luna): right at the top of the range, spiked and spindly as a Manolo Blahnik heel and just as capable of lethal damage. It’s in the absurd, ostentatious and unnecessary bustle that protrudes from the back of Sylvia’s dress (costumes and set by Hildegard Bechtler). And it’s scattered through Cairns’ libretto (written in collaboration with Ades), but most pronounced when Sylvia talks of surviving a train derailment, which crushed the third-class carriage “like a concertina”, and how “the pain of those poor common people didn’t affect me at all”; and particularly when her enervated brother Francisco throws a tantrum because there are no coffee spoons available for breakfast, only teaspoons he considers too big. These are people immune to hardship, immune to want, impregnable in their fortress of plenty and oblivious to it – until the impregnability of that fortress is made manifest to them, forcing them to confront their common humanity.
That makes them sound quite hateful, and they might be, if Adès treated them with any less sensitivity and indeed fondness. Some of his music, especially as the guests arrive, is all sharp elbows and cut diamond edge, but it softens as their social front collapses, to bring in lilting folk songs, lyrical piano and, in the case of young lovers Eduardo and Beatriz, a sumptuous bed of silk and roses translated into plangent melody. Each voice has its distinctive quality, but some emerge as particularly alluring: the countertenor Iestyn Davies makes Francisco’s anxieties float ethereal, Amanda Echalaz lets slip the carmine desire beneath Lucia’s cool poise, and John Tomlinson’s Doctor offers a stout voice of authority unable to take charge against forces beyond his control. “What are the men doing to get us out of this impasse?” Sylvia asks furiously. Well, quite.
The most enticing character of all is the exterminating angel itself: that mysterious force given eerie voice by Cynthia Millar on the ondes martenot. These passages are a triumph of library nerdery and Twilight Zone shiver: even with Millar fully in sight – she sits not in the pit but a box on the side, accompanied by the harpist and a flamenco guitarist, an unlikely combination that Adès takes unabashed glee in throwing together – the sounds she coaxes from the instrument are bewildering in their familiar strangeness. It is the opera singer ultimately who finds the route to escape, but Adès doesn’t let anyone off the hook that easily: the sense of unease creeps out of the room and on to the streets, where the toll of the bell is replaced by the rat-a-tat percussion of rifles and the echoing cries of “down with the pigs, down with the pigs”.
Just as, by presenting itself within the framework of surrealism, Buñuel’s film resisted simplistic interpretation, so too does the opera. And yet, there are a couple of gorgeous interviews with Adès out there, one in the FT, in which he talks about the freedom of knowing you are trapped, and says, “Make no mistake, this opera is about ‘you’, whoever you think that is”; and another in the Guardian, in which he says: “It’s about the end of the world – it’s very catastrophic. We don’t get that so often in Britain – although it might be happening now.” That interview took place in July last year, and since then the UK has only felt more horrific: more of a cage, in fact, its walls caving inwards, and those of us who believe in common humanity and shared endeavour and kindness and generosity more suffocated by living here.
Even if it changes nothing, to see an opera challenging the status quo, reducing them – in Nobile’s own words – to “bestiality, violence, filth, everything I’ve hated since childhood”, simply by locking them in their own gilded palace from which they must needs find a way out and return to the world, is an experience of great satisfaction.
The Exterminating Angel is at the Royal Opera House until May 8th. For more details, click here.