Dayton Hare: Seraphic dread and the prison of the mind

Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 5:45pm

For perhaps the first time in opera history, as the audience shuffled into the vast performance space, three sheep stood grazing near the middle of the stage. They were remarkably calm, considering the hundreds of people gawking at them, and even after the music’s first tones began to sound they remained nonplussed. Two shepards tended to them, scooping up any excrement that happened to arrive. Above their heads an immense, right-angled arch with the presence of the “2001: A Space Odyssey” monolith stood in shadow. Gradually, a sonic world began to open up, as a solemn bell tone began to chime, at first only intermittently, but gradually over the course of some 15 minutes, increasing in frequency and joined by additional bells. Then, like lightning, a butler shooed the animals off-stage and the orchestra exploded into life. It was time.

Thomas Adès’s newest opera, “The Exterminating Angel,” closed at the Metropolitan Opera in late Nov., but not before I’d had a chance to witness it. Far and away the most popular classical composer on the far side of the Atlantic, the 46-year-old Englishman is unrivalled in terms of craft. Even those who dislike his music are forced to concede that Adès is a marvelous technician, with a keen ear for detail and a performer’s sense of energy and flow. Few composers alive can match him for sheer technique and command of his musical forces. But more than that, Adès is one of the leading musical figures of our day because he possesses an intuitive grasp of drama, an uncanny ability to electrify the latent energy of a libretto. In this sense — and in terms of his musical style — he is the heir of Alban Berg, the avant-garde 20th-century Austrian composer whose operas “Wozzeck” and the unfinished “Lulu” manage to probe the depths of human psychology in a manner that is somehow at once vicious and compassionate.

Adès’s latest project is a page from the same book. His subject is the 1962 surrealist film “El ángel exterminador” by the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, a movie that is notable both for its bizarre plot and bleak humor. The story features a cast of some 15 or so aristocrats who, after having enjoyed an opera, return to a lavish dinner only to find — at the end of the night — that they are unable to leave the room. This is to say, there’s no reason they can’t physically leave, if only they could muster the willpower to do it, yet each of them, one by one, is unable to bring themselves to cross the threshold, as if some invisible force were impeding their way. A soirée turns into a breakfast. A breakfast turns into a dilemma. A dilemma turns into a nightmare. As the food runs out, and the hours turn into days and the days turn into weeks, the refined dinner guests descend into savagery. The room turns into a prison, and as the aristocrats turn on one another one can’t help but wonder what dark and unknowable forces are at play.

Adès’s adaptation is remarkably faithful to his source material, with necessary adjustments made for the stage. Superfluous characters are combined, lines are cut, aria material added, but for the most part he takes Buñuel’s material wholecloth. Some scenes, such as when the dinner guests inexplicably arrive twice (pulled off with a deft sleight of hand in terms of stagecraft), are taken directly from the film. But an opera is more than a retelling of someone else’s story, and Adès knows it. With his music, he takes the psychological tumult lurking under the surface of Buñuel’s film and drags it out into the open. The original is ridged with internal tension, and Adès twists the taut dramatic string until it snaps with a cataclysmic force. With an enormous orchestra at his command (Adès also conducted the Met performances), he ratchets up the turmoil until it can be literally felt as sonic vibration.

In order to accomplish his dramatic and musical purposes, Adès demanded an almost unreasonable amount from his musicians. The instrumentation of the orchestra was expanded to include miniature violins, numerous bells and percussion instruments, a solo guitar and, most strikingly, an ondes martenot (an eerie electronic instrument) which serves as the personification of the titular angel of death. The music itself is — as in all of Adès’s work — demanding, descended from the traditions of European modernism via his teachers Robin Holloway and Alexander Goehr at Cambridge University. The singers were called upon to perform seemingly superhuman feats by the composer (coloratura soprano Audrey Luna sang the highest note ever heard at the Met), but Adès seemingly always knew the boundaries of his performers well enough to push them to the very furthest extreme, further than they knew themselves capable.

The opera’s music itself was characteristically superb, blending a disparate collection of influences into a cohesive and compelling sonic landscape. As The New Yorker’s critic Alex Ross put it in his original review of the Salzburg production a year-and-a-half ago, “throughout, Adès pulls off the Stravinskyan feat of making prior styles sound like premonitions of his own.” While the music as a whole resembles the darkly brooding work of Alban Berg (albeit with a smattering more of tonality) and the overall aesthetic could be described as the sound of dread, there are moments at various points throughout the opera when a touch of humor or beauty bursts through. Early scenes involve sardonic dance music, drunken waltzes stumbling through the mansion halls. (When I interviewed Adès a couple years ago about an early piece of his, he mentioned the influence of Piazzolla’s tangos on his thinking, and moments of this opera feel like a more mature version of that). Additionally, a few arias and duets throughout are genuinely touching in the traditional sense, including a fatalistic love duet between two characters just before they commit suicide in one another’s arms and a lullaby/lament from a mother directed to her absent son, which she sings while cradling the severed head of a sheep (gruesome and horrifying, but moving).

But for all the technical wizardry, superb musicianship and stellar score, the most compelling aspect of the opera remains the story itself. Adès is far less a surrealist than Buñuel — a fact which comes across in both the opera’s psychological emphasis and the glossing over of some of the more humorous elements from the film — but nevertheless has engaged deeply with his material. When one encounters a story like this, it often takes a fair bit of effort to figure out what exactly it means, but in this case an explanation presents itself easily. In his original review of “El ángel exterminador,” the film critic Roger Ebert pegs it as a critique of the ruling elite of Franco’s Spain, going on to claim that Buñuel’s “firmest conviction was that most people were hypocrites.” These two explanations are both bourne out in the story: Try as though we might, we can rarely empathize with the characters on screen/stage. They’re simply too callus, too conceited, too condescending. At one point a dinner guest recalls being in a train wreck, in which a third-class car was “squashed like an accordian.” She continues: “I must be heartless, the suffering of those poor people didn’t move me at all.” Well, at least she got the first part right. This is just one of many examples of how out-of-touch the capitalist class is, and Buñuel drives the point home in the remainder of the film, as the bourgeois class descends into barbarity when the going gets rough. More than that, at the beginning of the film and the opera, it’s the servants who have an awful and unarticulated premonition of the horror to come, abandoning their posts before it’s too late. Clearly the poor have some sort of better sense, or else are favored by God.

This theme is certainly not a new one: Both Adès and Buñuel share a common habit of skewering the bourgeoisie. In Buñuel’s films it is perhaps the most obvious in a later movie of his, “Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie,” in which — in contrast to the ill-fated dining experience of “El ángel exterminador” — the characters are never able to sit down to eat, try though they might; but Adès’s œuvre also lends itself to this analysis. His first opera, “Powder Her Face,” which he wrote as a precocious young composer in the ’90s, is based on the story of a disgraced British dutchess whose sexual exploits in the 1960s destroyed her reputation. In that opera, though we are made to sympathize with the protagonist in the face of the viciousness of the mob, Adès nevertheless paints an unflattering portrait of the ruling-class, with the dutchess coming across as clueless, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and an altogether pathetic figure. In “The Exterminating Angel,” it is much of the same. The impression given by both operas about the aristocracy is perhaps best summed up by one of the common-folk in “Powder Her Face”: “They’re not like us.”

The irony of using an opera to criticise the upper class is not lost on me. Indeed, an opera performance is where the characters are returning from at the outset of the story. Several of the characters in the story are themselves participants in opera, one a conductor and one a young star. The very same type of people being criticised in the work are probably listening to and paying for it. One wonders what their impression was.

But the opera is more than class criticism. Partially the result of the composer’s breathtaking score and Expressionist tendencies, the psychological drama takes precedence. While not averse to some jokes and wordplay (at one point, after dinner, a character is asked to “play something by Hades” (pronounced like “Adès”) at the piano), the overall tone is attuned to the mental drama going on. It’s an opera about class, yes, but it’s also about what T.S. Eliot called the space “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act.” It’s about the inability to resolve something and carry through with it. It’s about the horrible sensation of being helpless despite yourself. It’s about the internal prisons we build for ourselves. Paired with the drama, Adès’s music creates a lingering impression of dread, a creeping feeling that can be, in an instant, transfigured into terror. And perhaps that terror is the real take away — because whatever class we may belong to, fear grips us all.