Among the plethora of quasi-quotations that litter (and that is the right word) Thomas Adès‘ operatic ‘take’ on Luis Buñuel’s cinematic masterwork El ángel exterminador, there was one quotation missing that, had it appeared at the very start, would have made at least the first two acts make total sense: the Looney Tunes opening titles. Surprisingly – and, actually, it was a very pleasant surprise – The Exterminating Angel bears a much closer similarity to Powder Her Face than The Tempest; in terms of compositional technique, his new opera is clearly an extension of The Tempest, but its overall tone and attitude is very much more that of his debut opera. Yet the key word here is ‘similarity’: Powder Her Face was sarcastic but subtle and sophisticated, the bite of its wit matched by an undeniable aesthetic elegance and dazzling compositional ingenuity. Those are not words that suit The Exterminating Angel. From the outset, Adès seems to feel his characters are inhabiting a cartoon, the music often literally following their movements, replete with orchestral crashes to coincide with the character of Raúl being slapped about the face(!). The quotations Adès draws on – familiar fare: waltzes, Spanish outbursts, faux-Romantic piano variations, etc. – don’t so much flesh this out as act like musical Post-It notes to make quick and dirty allusive connections in lieu of something more considered and musically argued.
When not behaving like this, the music regularly took on a curious habit of treading water. It’s interesting to note Adès’ words in his conversation with Christian Arseni (originally published to coincide with the Salzburg première performances, and reproduced on this occasion): “When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C…”. Adès seems to have meant that very literally, producing great tracts of material that one can only meaningfully describe as ‘underscore’. Sometimes this material undergoes the chord progression processes that now typify his work, and in Act 1 in particular they were so aurally transparent that following their movement provided some interest, but elsewhere the music at times exhibited such neutrality that the singers felt entirely disconnected from it, as though skimming above the accompaniment’s surface.
But there aren’t just serious musical problems to contend with. Buñuel’s film is absurd, which is very different from being comic. Only in the driest, darkest sense could the characters and the events that befall them in El ángel exterminador be described as ‘funny’. On the contrary, like a Twilight Zone episode, it’s uncanny, unnatural, weird, unexplainable; if we laugh at all, it’s because of how profoundly unsettled it makes us feel, at the seemingly pointless, meaningless behaviour of the trapped protagonists. Adès’ approach – presumably in collusion with director Tom Cairns – rather than seeking to construct what we might call an ‘opera absurda’, has turned it into a blatant opera buffa; now, the characters are funny, deliberately so, many of their lines – thankfully, mostly faithful to the film’s screenplay – no longer emerging as distressed and bewildered, but as punchlines to an ongoing joke (reinforced by the orchestra). And this causes major dramatic problems for Adès, who clearly wants to tap into more seriousness later in the opera, particularly in Act 3.
In practice, though, it was simply not possible to take these scenes seriously at all: one thinks of American sitcoms that from time to time inject moments of ostensible emotional heaviness into their storylines, but which no-one actually cares about because we all know in due course the weight will be lifted, there’ll be no meaningful repercussions and we’ll all be laughing once again. That’s precisely how it came across in The Exterminating Angel. So Eduardo and Beatriz’s final duet, prior to their joint suicide in the walk-in cabinet (rather brilliantly realised on stage with the cabinet emerging from the side with see-through walls) was little more than neo-romantic mush, and even Silvia’s plaintive ‘Berceuse macabre’, singing to the cadaver of a sheep as though it were her child, came across as simply ridiculous, rather than the twisted, unhinged thing it could have been, and which Adès was surely aiming for. Perhaps the most egregious example of the work’s self-defeating musical levity was the bastardised rendition of ‘Sheep may safely graze’ accompanying the moment when the lambs are discovered, and then seized, slaughtered and devoured. Hilarious. We really were a world away from Buñuel, whose invisible barrier at the looming doorway arch evokes an infinite, silent dread in his characters, the inscrutable reactions on their faces telling us everything we need to know about the very present horror they all feel. Whereas for Adès and Cairns, such a moment needs to be spoon-fed to the audience with a bright flash at the room’s edge and an orchestral glancing blow.
There were moments that managed to go beyond the prevailing farce: Adès’ use of the ondes Martenot to hint at the magical force compelling both those within to remain, and those without to stay back, was quite nice, though suffered a little due to the instrument’s associations from over-use in umpteen B-movies. The most telling episode was the intricate, fantastical guitar solo during the dismembered hand’s crawling around the doorway, the one occasion when the opera proved itself capable of producing a genuine shiver. These moments only worked against the opera as a whole, though, exposing its musical and dramatic shortcomings all the more glaringly.
Powder Her Face, this work’s aesthetic progenitor, was a precocious piece, yet its sophistication now seems all the more magnified beside the shockingly inept conception and embarrassingly immature execution displayed in The Exterminating Angel. Emanuel Schikaneder would wholeheartedly have approved; one suspects Buñuel’s response would have been rather different.
Forget the sheep: nothing would have been more fitting had the opera closed with the chirpy appearance and immortal line of Porky Pig: “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!”