Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel

Thomas Adès is unafraid to occupy dangerous ground. Whether peering into the Duchess of Argyll’s private quarters in Powder Her Face (1995) or stepping onto Prospero’s island in The Tempest (2004), his theatrical work is unapologetically bold. So when it came to announcing his third opera, Adès was unlikely to hide his light. Inspired by Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film El Ángel Exterminador, Adès and his librettist Tom Cairns’s new opera takes us to the very edge of horror. Sometimes, the threat is conveyed with a blackly comic glint and, at others, with barbaric ferocity. But a fundamental question hovers over the whole, like the wings of its eponymous yet invisible angel. “What can it mean?” Colonel Álvaro Gómez asks at the beginning of Act II. “I don’t know,” Raúl Yebenes responds. “There is no explanation.”

Extracting significance from—or appending meaning to—Buñuel’s film has been a vexing business ever since it first appeared on screen in 1962, when Francisco Franco’s fascist regime was at its height in Spain. Buñuel, a Spaniard working in exile in Mexico, obfuscated any message couched in the film in a bid to prevent it becoming the unnecessary focus of interpretative rationalization:

If the film which are you are about to see seems to you enigmatic or incongruous, that is how life is also. It is repetitive like life and, like life again, subject to many interpretations. The author declares that it was not his intention to play with symbols, at least not consciously. Perhaps the best explanation for El Ángel Exterminador is that, rationally, there is none.

Even the evocative title was only added at a later date. The film was originally called Los Náufragos de la Calle Providencia (The Shipwrecked of Providence Street), apparently taking its lead from a painting by Théodore Géricault concerning the 1816 shipwreck of the French frigate Méduse, whose survivors engaged in cannibalism. The idea of a group stranded during a disaster—a theme Adès previously explored with The Tempest—certainly provides a potent metaphor for the film’s otherwise mundane scenario, revolving around a dinner party. For generations, similarly dysfunctional dinners have provided vehicles for revelation and degradation, though in this case, none of the guests—nor, indeed, the hosts themselves, the glamorous Lucía and Edmundo de Nobile—is aware of what is about to be unleashed. The servants, on the other hand, are better informed.

The idea of adapting Buñuel’s film first occurred to Adès before he began work on The Tempest. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, the basis for numerous adaptations, El Ángel Exterminador seems a somewhat unyielding choice, notwithstanding the many references to opera throughout the screenplay. But Adès, whose mother is an art historian specializing in surrealism, insists that the story is fundamentally operatic. “Every opera is about getting out of a particular situation,” he says, and “every piece of music is looking for an exit. ... The film is very musical in another way, too, because there’s an underground river of meaning, which is not exactly what the people are saying.” Eschewing a soundtrack, Buñuel’s original is characterized by “silences between the spoken lines,” which, while powerful, could be expressed even more forcefully through music. “Music supports the private personality behind the façade on the one hand (and lets us feel empathy with the characters),” Adès explains, “but on the other, it also supports the other force that is pulling them into a kind of shared nothingness.”

In constructing their libretto, Adès and Cairns decided to reduce the number of characters, as well as the length of the text itself, given the extra time needed to sing spoken lines. In the end, however, they were surprised how closely their libretto followed the screenplay by Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza. Nevertheless, there are some notable departures from its dramaturgy, not least in the inclusion of various arias and ensembles, like those in Bach’s Passions. They seem to stand apart from the narrative, while commenting upon it, and allow us access to the character’s “private personalities.”

For these static moments, which do not occur in what Adès calls “real time,” he and Cairns turned to Buñuel’s poetry from the 1920s. And like those surreal texts, the arias, “where the action stops and the music comments on the emotional meaning of what is happening,” have a heightened quality. So what can be a rather objective, detached, and even cold drama in the original El Ángel Exterminador becomes a much more heated and unpredictable experience in Adès and Cairns’s The Exterminating Angel.

The arias that punctuate the action take many forms. Lucía de Nobile’s “Ragoût Aria,” heard near the beginning of the drama, suggests, by means of a latter-day waltz—more in the manner of Ravel’s terrifying La Valse than Johann Strauss II’s lilting Blue Danube—the collapse of a social order. That is certainly one of the main lines of interpretation applied to Buñuel’s film, not least in reference to Franco’s Spain. The opera now invites similar comparisons to today’s global socio-political situation.

Musically, however, the score is more timeless, as given to allusion as it is to vehement dissonance. The Baroque flourishes of Blanca Delgado’s piano variations and her vision “over the sea,” sung “as if remembering a tune from childhood,” imply a Proustian search for lost time. More beautiful, and more ageless still, is the lavish language of Beatriz and Eduardo’s love scenes. Idealists, even visionaries—neither of whom is accorded a surname in the film or the opera—they are completely absorbed in their romance, much like Francisco de Ávila’s obsession with his coffee spoons, his medicine, and his sister, or Leonora Palma’s lustful dependency on Doctor Carlos Conde.

These meditative numbers constitute gathering points in a score that is otherwise typified by states of flux. Throughout, melodies threaten to become murmurs, glissandos decay the primacy of individual notes, and, in one alarming moment, just as the guests try to confront the threshold into and out of the room, the ondes Martenot is instructed to play as if it were “swallowing the orchestra.” This fascinating electronic instrument, invented by French cellist and wartime radio telegrapher Maurice Martenot in 1928, was first used by figures such as Edgard Varèse and Olivier Messiaen, both of whom were drawn to apocalyptic subjects. In Adès’s score, the ondes Martenot “becomes a symbol,” the composer says, “the voice of this ‘exterminating angel,’ in the sense that the instrument is heard whenever a figure says something that contributes to the situation of immobility.” In many ways, its role is mirrored by that of the large arch towering over Hildegard Bechtler’s set.

As the guests step over this threshold that will imprison them and greet each other with the word “enchanted”—which gains a double meaning in the process—the ondes Martenot lends an air of surreality in a passage that is quickly followed by a disturbing repeat of the welcoming ritual. Likewise, when Lucía declares that “tonight’s entertainment has begun,” the ondes Martenot returns to provide an ironic halo. At one point, during the cadenza in Blanca’s ethereal aria, Adès marks that the angel’s “voice” is “not controlled by human will,” emitting music without limitation, while constantly underlining the restrictions placed on those in the room.

Ultimately, it is the realization, true or false, that these boundaries can be broken that heralds the end of The Exterminating Angel. Like Blanca before her, Leticia sees a vision of home, far away in Jerusalem. Entrenched dissonance falls away, and a new, far-sighted music, marked “transfigured,” appears to have broken the grasp of the invisible angel. The ondes Martenot is mute, the solemn, funereal Wagner tubas and growling trombones fall silent, and Leticia’s voice, like that of a Valkyrie (as her character is nicknamed), takes wing. She sings words from an early–12th-century Zionide by Toledo-born poet Yehuda Halevi, who sadly—and perhaps tellingly—died shortly after arriving in the Promised Land.

As the bells that began the opera return, not ringing in a new dawn but seemingly the advent of martial law—hinted at during the terrifying interlude that follows Act I—we are left uncertain as to the conclusion. Is salvation at hand, implored in the last screaming “Libera me”? Or does the absence of a double bar line at the end of Adès’s score point to a ceaseless cycle? Or perhaps the focus now turns to the audience—the next unwitting throng to be swallowed by that all-devouring angel?


—Gavin Plumley