Bright Lights Film Journal

Tempest in a Teaspoon – Thomas Adès Opera of Buñuel’s <em>The Exterminating Angel</em>

Alan Vanneman goes to the Met – the Metropolitan Opera, that is. The Met was looking for a film critic who likes opera to review Thomas Adès operatic version of Luis Buñuel’s surreal classic The Exterminating Angel. I saw the dress rehearsal of The Exterminating Angel on October 23, and review it here (it appeared in somewhat different form on my blog). The November 18 matinee performance of the opera will be shown in movie theaters around the world.

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You’ve seen the movie, now hear the opera!

Fewer sheep, more tunes! That’s the short take on composer Thomas Adès fascinating new opera, The Exterminating Angel, enjoying its Metropolitan Opera premiere on October 26. The Exterminating Angel, with a libretto by Tom Cairns, is based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 classic exercise in Iberian surrealism, directed by Buñuel using a screenplay he wrote in collaboration with Luis Alcoriza, depicting an elegant group of high-end Spaniards attending a charming dinner party that unfortunately never ends.

Adès’ score is austere, astringent, and demanding. The high gods of high modernism, raised on gelid, marmoreal plinths more than a century ago, still hold sway over much of what we can vaguely (very vaguely) call “European” music, whether composed by Brits like Adès or Americans like Elliott Carter and George Crumb. There is little redundancy in this music, few cues or clues. We always know where we are, just, but where we’ve been or where we’re going? That’s not so clear.

Adès beautifully exploits the full richness of the orchestral palette to create a sonic landscape from which the voices of the trapped guests emerge and recede in a constant ensemble as they try to make sense of this incoherent dream in which they are trapped, a riddle that, sadly, lacks all solution.

Adès’ score is not as consistently “severe,” I would say, as his previous opera, an intriguing reworking of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Buñuel’s film, though not always satirical – the trapped guests’ inexplicable torment cuts much deeper than that – there is much to laugh at. The music follows this, getting blunt and rowdy on occasion, even using the bluntest of all musical instruments, the flatulent tuba. Best of all is the most wonderful orchestral bear growl you’re ever going to hear!1

Cairns’ libretto closely tracks Buñuel’s film, though tightening up and, really, improving on the ending. Both the opera and the film open with scenes of disarray at an aristocratic2 household: the servants are leaving, just before the marqués and marquesa will be returning from the opera with their guests for a lavish dinner! Who will serve the meal? Pour the champagne? Or manage the flock of sheep, and the bear, who have been assembled to play an as yet unspecified, though surely vital, part in the evening festivities?

The cooks, maids, and footmen have no answer for poor Julio, the head butler (Christian Van Horn). It’s not a rebellion, really, or a strike. They just want, somehow, to be gone! And so they go!

When the fancy folks arrive, it’s the usual suspects, an “enchanted” and “enchanting” crowd (they say so themselves, often!) of aristocrats, leavened with a few “interesting people” – a colonel, an explorer, a doctor, and a clutch of musicians – a conductor, a pianist, and an opera singer. Things start roughly for the marquès, Edmundo (Joseph Kaiser), when Lucas, who’s always there to take his coat, isn’t. Well, that’s easily smoothed over, but the confusion quickly mounts. Time starts repeating itself. Didn’t this already happen? Didn’t I just say that a couple of minutes ago? Well, never mind. Let’s not interrupt the flow, that’s the important thing.3

Later on, the opposite occurs: instead of duplicating itself, time starts taking jumps. You meet someone for the first time, start chatting amiably, and all of a sudden you find yourself saying something quite intimate and inappropriate. How did we get that far along? Oh, well, I must be missing something. I’m sure it’s all right. I’m sure Edmundo and Lucia, la marquesa (Amanda Echalaz), have a lovely evening planned for us. Everything will be fine, as it always is!

And, indeed, Lucia does have a treat! “a Maltese ragout” composed of liver, honey, and almonds, said to stimulate the appetite, because it’s so important to eat a lot!

But when the maid enters, she trips, taking a header that sends the ragout flying everywhere! Terrible! But don’t worry! It was all a joke, contrived to amuse you! Because real life is so boring – particularly parties like this one – one must arrange for the occasional accident!

So much fun! Too much, unfortunately. Señor Russell (Kevin Burdette), an elderly gentleman, finds it all a bit strenuous. There’s more to come, as the bear, led by his keeper, starts to make his entrance, but Lucia heads him off, so we never get to see what was going to happen, just as in the original film.4 Enough surprises! The guests can’t stand the strain!

After dinner, the party lurches on. The vocal lines for the cast swirl in and out of the orchestral accompaniment as the guests chat, gossip, and intrigue, as they’ve done a thousand times, seeking others’ secrets and guarding their own, though it’s difficult to tell the characters apart, because they’re all so much alike! Yes, they all have their little sins, their little games, but, like our own, they’re all one in their pettiness!

Eventually, around four in the morning, Buñuel’s great twist arrives: They can’t leave! They somehow just can’t summon the will to walk out the door! But even this is fun! We’ll improvise! Just camp out for the night, right here on the furniture!

But intimacy quickly loses its charm. Nothing so unwelcome as an unwashed guest. And besides, with no servants, we have to stir our coffee with teaspoons instead of coffee spoons! Entirely unsuitable!

Unfortunately, the shortage of coffee spoons proves the least of their problems. Adès’ score follows the twists and turns of Buñuel’s fractured narrative as the veneer of civilization, absurdly thin to begin with, quickly splinters to reveal, what? Uncivil monsters rather than civil ones! The smell may be worse, but other than that, how much has changed?

In the film, the guests, most of them, do make their escape, and, naturally but unwisely, go to church to give thanks for their deliverance, only to find they’ve entered another prison. Cairns and Adès improve on this when the guests make their escape and enter a large crowd of curiosity seekers who have been waiting outside, drawn by their plight. But then the stage revolves and everyone, outsiders and guests alike, is drawn in, into a house they cannot leave.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to look for morals from surrealists, or to try to find a logic to their illogic. Their mysterious symbols point to their own mystery rather than a conventional “meaning,” for surrealists prefer disorder to order – because “order” is a lie. Adès and Cairns, I think, capture very well Buñuel’s picture of a world based on caprice. Things are randomly falling apart because the previous coherence was random as well. You took it all too seriously, thought that what was “true” today would be true forever, merely because you liked it. But your wishes count for nothing.

Turning a film into a live performance is always demanding, and the Met’s staging, which I saw in dress rehearsal, is quite effective, with a few, but only a few, really striking special effects, and, perhaps more important, no misfires. This isn’t Miss Saigon, after all. We’re here mostly for the music.

You can find out more about the Met’s presentation of The Exterminating Angel here. The November 18 matinee performance will be shown in movie theaters around the world, and I’ll be reviewing that performance as well. I know that for most people opera is a hard sell. And contemporary opera? Very hard sell. But for the few – for the brave – it’s time to open your eyes and ears.


Screenshot from the 1964 French TV documentary on Buñuel, Un Cineaste de Notre Temps

What, or who, is the “Exterminating Angel”? Buñuel certainly doesn’t bother to tell us. But a good guess might be l’Ennui. One striking aspect of Buñuel’s original film, set in still Franco Spain, and “pre sixties” Europe, is the “timelessness” of the lifestyle we see: charming gossip, entertainment, intrigues, liaisons, feuds, and whatnot. This film could have been set in 1862, or even 1762, with almost nothing changed except a few costume alterations and the substitution of candles for the electric lights.5

Yes, Madrid in 1862 or 1762, or perhaps Manhattan in 2017. Transforming The Exterminating Angel from film to opera adds a wrinkle, because these are, after all, exactly the kind of people who go to the opera! Behold your enchanting selves!

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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by Ken Howard, from the production, and appear through the courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

  1. Orchestra pit? Sounds like a bear pit to me! Actually, the bear doesn’t do much in either the film or the opera. []
  2. In Buñuel’s original, the characters are “bourgeois,” but Cairns has, for whatever reason, promoted most of them to the aristocracy. []
  3. Buñuel, a bit lazily in my opinion, runs the same footage a second time, as though there’s some sort of glitch in the footage we’re seeing, which is not really the point. []
  4. In the opera, we see two or three live sheep as sort of an “opening act,” prior to the actual start, but the bear, from the little we see of him, looks like a guy in a bear suit. A singing bear, like Fafner, the singing dragon in Wagner’s Siegfried, might have been fun, but Cairns and Adès decided not to go that way. Buñuel used a real bear, and he doesn’t do much of anything either. One can suspect that Buñuel had bigger plans for the bear, but discovered that directing animals, particularly bears, is even worse than directing actors. Charlie Chaplin had similar problems with Shoulder Arms back in 1919, forced to give up on a killer frog gag when the little bugger insisted on jumping right despite Charlie’s repeated commands of “Left! Left!” []
  5. In 1738, Jonathan Swift published Polite Conversation, three dialogues involving seven persons of quality, including “Mr. Neverout” and “Lady Answerall,” a guide to verbal good taste compiled by Simon Wagstaff, who sums up his efforts in the following manner: “I can faithfully assure the reader that there is not one witty Phrase in this whole Collection, which hath not received the Stamp and Approbation of at least one hundred Years.” []