The Exterminating Angel
“People go to a dinner party and for some reason they can’t leave,” a Met patron was explaining to his companion as we waited in the lobby for the doors to open for Thomas Adès’s new opera, The Exterminating Angel. Of all plots it must be the easiest to recap. The genius of the premise of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 Mexican film was to strip narrative down to an irreducible stasis: for no knowable cause, a group of people are unable to move forward. The more particular genius of its execution was to make this play like a real story rather than an exercise in absurdist abstraction. No matter how many times you watch it—each time becoming more aware of the contradictions, repetitions, and anomalies that constantly eat away at its semblance of logic—you nevertheless are drawn into an anticipation that this time, somehow, a different way will be found, a different outcome made possible: all this concern for as socially callous and uselessly self-absorbed a collection of upper-class twits and jaded neurotics as could be imagined.
Buñuel’s dinner guests, who arrive (twice, as an early warning of impending discontinuities) at the home of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile to honor an opera singer who has just performed Lucia di Lammermoor, barely qualify as characters. They are masks, types—the Aristocrat, the Military Man, the Artiste, the Doctor, the Invalid, the Lovers—made even more generic by a style of acting redolent of the kind of commercial melodrama that some of the cast customarily appeared in. It is only as these waxwork figures start to fall apart—in a process that will lead to quarrels, hysteria, sexual molestation, suicide, animal sacrifice, hallucinations, rites of exorcism, and a nearly successful initiative to lynch the host—that they seem human at all. Only a last-minute (and temporary) miracle allows them to reassume the roles they walked in with, liberated from their incarceration in the mansion on Calle de la Providencia as mysteriously as they were imprisoned.
Why Thomas Adès should settle on this film as the source for his third opera, beyond a lifelong fondness for it, is suggested by some remarks in an engaging book of interviews that the critic Tom Service conducted with him: “It’s the question I ask with any opera: why would these people not just leave the stage? Why are they stuck here, singing, and why are we listening?”1 In his first opera, Powder Her Face (1995), Adès created a portrait of the aging, scandal-ridden Duchess of Argyll stranded in a very overpopulated rented room, and his version of The Tempest (2004) addressed exile, shipwreck, and servitude.
The Exterminating Angel—for which Buñuel’s original title was The Castaways of the Calle de la Providencia—certainly…
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