Proms 2021: Thomas Adès – The Exterminating Angel Symphony

by 5:4

Last night’s Proms performance of Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel Symphony wasn’t a première (a so-called “London première” is not a première!) so i’m not technically including it as part of my annual survey of the season’s new works, but there’s a couple of good reasons to say a little something about it. Firstly, because this was only the second performance of the piece, premièred by the CBSO just a day earlier at Symphony Hall in Birmingham (i wrote a few words about that performance for Bachtrack); and secondly, because it’s interesting to reflect on this piece in light of my response to Adès’ 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel, which was, to put it mildly, not good.

i wrote about the opera at some length following its first UK performance four years ago, so i won’t re-hash all of that again now. In brief, Adès’ opera is based on Luis Buñuel’s astonishing 1962 film El ángel exterminador, telling the surreal, Twilight Zone-esque tale of a group of friends who, relaxing after dinner, find themselves – for no apparent reason – completely unable to leave the room. It’s an inexplicable, deeply unsettling story that only becomes increasingly tense and troubling as it progresses, entering dark and horrific territory. As i described previously, the key problem with the opera was the decision – which, in hindsight, has only seemed all the more bizarre – to re-interpret Buñuel’s uncanny sense of dread in a comedic vein, reducing terror to the level of a farce, nowhere more appallingly executed than in the replacement of the film’s completely silent barrier at the edge of the room – conveying a truly numinous form of horror – with flashes and sound effects. It’s a grotesque travesty.

So having now heard it twice, it’s nice to be able to report that Adès’ repurposing of a small portion of the opera into The Exterminating Angel Symphony makes for a very much more rewarding and cinematically sympathetic experience. All it took to achieve that was ditching all of the opera’s dialogue and staging, and about an hour-and-three-quarters of its music.

There are four movements, corresponding to key scenes and transitions within the opera. It’s interesting to note how the second movement, March, is full of contradictions, primarily in the disconnect between its demeanour and its direction. On the one hand, it calls on the wild (enforced) enthusiasm and grandiosity of a typically goose-stepping Soviet march. Yet it turns out – fittingly for people unable to escape – to be both musically and dramatically null, its momentum not even moving in circles but simply stomping up and down on the spot, while its flamboyance and swagger are vacant and purely cosmetic, all of which only makes it sound more fiendish.

The Berceuse which follows is characterised by the level of discomfort it generates, Adès taking its tenderness and causing it to slide and crawl such that any sense of purpose feels eroded. A tilting into full-blown film score mode doesn’t bring any certainty to this; on the contrary, the music ends up lost and defocused, dragged ever down into a delicate mess of low register confusion, culminating in a series of angry pairs of accents that hint at and link to the final movement, Waltzes. Though compositionally rather basic, even backward – indeed, it could almost be an expanded offcut from Adès’ 1995 opera Powder Her FaceWaltzes nonetheless propels its contorted quotations on with the same relentlessness as in March, causing the lyricism to fail, collapsing into music that shines as it sags and slithers down into another pit of distressed quietude. The force of its bullish closing moments sounds as a nicely hollow effort towards something concrete, more out of desperation than anything else.

By far the most potent section is the opening movement, Entrances, where – twice, mirroring the disconcerting repeated depiction of the film’s characters returning from the opera and entering Edmundo Nóbile’s grand mansion house –  Adès’ trademark spiky Faberian fucked-up ascending / descending scale patterns (which by now really do sound pretty tired in his work) here being slowly transformed such that all of their playfulness is drained away. What it becomes is oddly sinister, a weird mix of bleached opulence and stupefaction, culminating in a closing sequence of low string chords that belie their gentleness and suggest something horrifyingly ominous.

So it turns out that twenty minutes of symphony can do much greater justice to Buñuel’s timeless classic than two hours of opera. By excising all the pantomimic japes and idiocy, The Exterminating Angel Symphony connects much more faithfully to the very real torment and agony of the original, resulting in a work that consistently drags and distorts its surface glamour into real depths of unfathomable shadow.

Both this performance and Wednesday’s world première of The Exterminating Angel Symphony were given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Programme note

Composed in 2020, this Symphony is an orchestral rendering of music from Adès’ third opera The Exterminating Angel. Based on Luis Buñuel’s classic surrealist movie from 1962, in which a collection of society characters find themselves inexplicably trapped together at a post-opera party, it premiered at the 2016 Salzburg Festival, and has since travelled to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and the Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen.

In the Symphony’s opening movement, Entrances, the guests arrive for dinner; in an early sign that they are leaving “reality” behind, they arrive twice. Then comes the ferocious and obsessive March that bridges the opera’s first two acts, the music for their first night under the spell of the Exterminating Angel. The third movement, a Berceuse, draws on some of the work’s most exquisite and memorable music: one of the yearning, melancholy duets between the doomed lovers Beatriz and Eduardo: Fold your body into mine / Hide yourself within its hand.

Adès describes composing Waltzes – the Symphony’s final and most extensive movement – as like “joining together the bits of a broken porcelain object”. Unlike the other movements, which draw on fairly complete passages from the opera, here the waltz fragments that surface throughout the score are brought together to create something wholly original. “What interests me about the waltz is the seductiveness of this music” remarked Adès in an interview before the opera’s premiere. “I often feel that the waltzes by Johann Strauss are saying ‘why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’. So in the context of this opera the waltz becomes very dangerous, potentially fatal.”

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