Cher Public

Untouched by an ‘Angel’

They’ve got plenty of mutton.

Just because one can write an opera based on a film, does this necessarily indicate that one should? While watching the North American premiere of Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel at the Metropolitan Opera, I kept returning to this central question. 

The opera is based on Luis Buñuel’s film El ángel exterminador, a staple of the surrealist canon and a clear work of genius. Filmed in Mexico City, while Buñuel lived in exile, the film dryly satirizes the solipsism and superficiality of the upper classes.

Critics have often tried to piece together the film’s enigmatic symbols, applying psychoanalytical and political hermeneutics in order to make sense of Buñuel’s perplexing vision—especially within the context of the period after the Spanish Civil War, during the dictatorship of Franco. However, in interviews Buñuel claimed that, as is true in life, there is no sense to be made of his work.

While Buñuel may have denied that the film held any latent, symbolic coherence, the plot is rife with allegory and existential dread. In the film, Edmundo de Nóbile and his wife Lucia host a lavish supper party, inviting several members of the upper class. As the guests arrive, many of the house servants inexplicably flee the premises. And when the party concludes, the guests find, for some reason, they can’t leave the music parlor. They eventually decide to spend the night.

While their inability to depart the room baffles the guests, they cannot bring themselves to do anything about it. Meanwhile, those outside the house are unable to get in, for, seemingly, the same mystifying reason. As the party guests languish under their lethargy, hunger, thirst, boredom, illness, and fear, Buñuel moves further into a surrealist mode, conjuring a phantasmagoria of odd, supernatural, and politically potent symbols.

The operatic version by Adès was a success in Salzburg, where it premiered in 2016. However, while watching the opera last night, I kept coming back to that same ontological question—why should this text be adapted into an opera in the first place? What does it do that Buñuel has not already done with these ideas, this setting, and these characters? In short: what’s the point?

Comments Adès has made in the press suggest that the composer was inspired to create the opera by his love of the film, not by any desire to transform it. In a recent interview with William R. Braun in Opera News, he says that he encountered Buñuel as a teenager, mostly under the influence of his mother, the renowned art historian Dawn Adès:

My mother is an art historian and—I suppose I can come out and say it—the expert on Dalí and photomontage Surrealism in general. She did the biggest exhibition on Dalí there’s ever been, in Venice. She knew him. I used to watch Buñuel films when I was thirteen, fourteen, because of my mother. Surrealism is something that was literally in the house all the time, in a huge way. It was the sort of art that I knew best, the whole world of that—Magritte, Max Ernst. So Buñuel, naturally, that sort of fantasy, played very dry, always appealed to me. It was an odd taste for a fourteen-year-old.

Adès seems self-satisfied with his adolescent precociousness—his attraction to this difficult genre of art, his access to it, even at a young age. And the early, familial bond he experienced as a fan of Buñuel accounts for his choice of El ángel exterminador as a source text.

But, just because you admire something doesn’t mean you have special permission to intervene on its behalf, to re-articulate it according to your interests and desires. Within the operatic canon, one immediately thinks of Verdi’s engagement with Shakespeare, and his uncanny ability to flesh out the more lyrical moments of the original text through music. Verdi justifies his intervention by the way he transforms and deepens the source material.

Adès’ adaptation does not demonstrate a similar artistic practice. For the love of El ángel exterminador, he should have left it alone—the film doesn’t need an artistic intervention. Buñuel did better than Adès ever could.

To be clear, Adès’ composition is meticulously worked out and relatively coherent. It keeps one’s attention; it’s slightly confrontational—at times almost beautiful, but also tedious and predictable—indistinct from much of the 20th and 21st century operas endeavoring to be modern. Buñuel’s flat, almost banal dialogue has a subtle, black humor at its core; Adès’ score eschews this manner in favor of a ponderous, self-important expressionism.

This approach is not without merit—in performance, the score was often frightening, even hair-raising. For example, during the short interlude between Act I and Act II, there was a spine-tingling barrage of percussion. Also the ending of the opera was downright horrifying, with a brassy, manic wall of sound suggesting apocalyptic dimensions.

However, this heavy-handed musical gesture paled in comparison to Buñuel’s original, slyly cruel ending for the film: innocent lambs trotting serenely toward a church to the sounds of gunfire and riot. Buñuel’s fantastic image and sound completely overshadows Adès’ imprecise intervention.

O sheep, why dost thou leave me?

Regarding the production by Tom Cairns, who co-wrote the libretto with the aid of the composer, there really is no intervention to write about. A few scenes and characters have been excised in the libretto, but the direction, including the sets and costumes (by Hildegard Bechtler), mimicked the original film so succinctly that it was eerie to watch—one felt inadvertently caught up in the existential loop the opera endeavors to enact.

The cast, as an ensemble, was most notable for its endurance. The same can be said of the orchestra as well, conducted last night with exuberance by the composer. While there are measures of tonality and ease that punctuate the oppressive dourness Adès has drawn over the narrative, the score’s most striking quality is the challenge it presents to its performers.

This is especially true of the role of Leticia, the opera singer. The role was sung with breathtaking bravura by Audrey Luna, who previously tackled the assignment at the world premiere at the Salzburg Festival and at Covent Garden. Leticia’s stratospheric tessitura recalls another Adès creation, Ariel from The Tempest, a part Luna sang at the Met in 2012. However, while Adès’ stratospheric scoring made sense for Ariel (fairy, spirit, air), it seemed superfluous with Leticia—all that dog-whistling did nothing to reveal her character, nor did it illuminate her function within the opera.

There were other fine performances, worth mentioning here as well. Alice Coote, as Leonora Palma, sung an erratic vocal line with a controlled mezzo-soprano, imbuing her character with gusto and complexity. Sophie Bevan and Sally Matthews both managed to draw out the more lyrically beautiful elements of the score as Silvia and Beatriz. Frédéric Antoun, Rod Gilfry, Iestyn Davies and David Portillo all deserve credit for acquitting themselves with dignity and grace.

However, as Doctor Carlos Conde, Sir John Tomlinson blustered and wobbled his way through a role that seems to call for finesse and gravity. While his august reputation precedes him, he was terribly miscast.

One final point: the whole project was rendered slightly sour by its epistemological context. In the opening scene of the opera, as in the film, there was a repetition of the party’s arrival; the characters repeated their dialogue and blocking, foreshadowing the nauseating loop into which they eventually descended. The production at the Met enacted this reiteration through lowering and raising the famous house chandeliers twice.

This gimmick, disorienting to say the least (at first I thought there was some technical glitch), located the target for the evening’s satire within the house’s plush red seats.

I’m not saying that audiences are beyond the purview of an artist’s criticism. However, to satirize people who paid up to $300.00 for this event—not to mention the members of the economic elite who make up the Met’s board of directors—seems both self-aggrandizing and willfully unaware of the systems that made the performance possible in the first place.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

  • CCorwinNYC

    Thank you, Patrick, for this graceful yet pungent review which mirrors many of my own qualms about this clumsy, pointless work particularly vis-a-vis the film. Bravo!

    Thank you, Patrick, for this graceful yet pungent review which mirrors many of my own qualms about this clumsy, pointless work particularly vis-a-vis the film. Bravo!

    • Apparently I’m not alone in finding Disqus a bit odd at the moment.

      • manou

        ….or maybe it is the opening scene and the chandeliers all over again?

        • CCorwinNYC

          Thank you, manou.

          • Oh well, I’m used to being thick.

    • emmett

      Very generous review
      ” the score’s most striking quality is the challenge it presents to its performers.”

      well put

      If Tony in the NYT is serious about if this is the only opera you see all year ,see this… he is condemning many new opera goers to swearing off opera for good.

      I thought the whole evening was ludicrous

      And i knew what i might be in for having seen the Tempest.

    • Anton VonWebern

      Great essay. You’ve located the essential question. To make matters worse, I agree with your conclusions.

  • Satisfied

    Couldn’t disagree more: there have been many more subjects unworthy of operatic treatement that were nevertheless produced, this film is both worthy of an opera and the Ades translation I found sensational. It’s been almost two years since I last saw this, but I’m scheduled to see this in two weeks. I’ll (attempt) to comment more articulately then.

    In the meantime, I do want to encourage other New York Parterrians find the time to fit this exquisite opera into their schedule!

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Excellent review. I’ve tipped off some fans of the movie who’d like to see the opera in HD. The lord only knows what they’ll make of the music.

  • Armerjacquino

    This is beautifully written, as usual, but there are a couple of things I wonder about. Surely any work of art is adaptable, however great or achieved the original? I don’t know this opera and maybe it doesn’t succeed, but the idea that a perfectly executed work of art should never inspire another is a pretty depressing one to me. A film may not ‘need an artistic intervention’ but no work of art was ever written to fulfill a need.

    And it may be bad public relations to hold up a mirror to the Met audience (plus the chandelier business sounds clumsy) but isn’t it sort of kind of one of the things that art is FOR?

    • How many mediocre films are based on great books?

      • Armerjacquino

        And great films based on mediocre books, come to that.

        • While I was out shopping I also thought “and great Lieder transfiguring weak poems”.

    • rapt

      A fine work finely translated: Babette’s Feast, story and film.

    • La Cieca

      The point being made, surely, was not that adaptation was wrong, but rather that one important point of adaptation was that the unique and powerful qualities of the new medium should be properly put to use.

      If we look at great film adaptation of novels, say, Lean’s Great Expectations or Coppola’s Godfather, we see that neither simply puts the book on screen. These pictures rather take the ideas and motifs of the source material and express them in purely cinematic terms. Example: both films use chiaroscuro lighting to symbolize mystery and hidden knowledge. This kind of visual vocabulary is a specialty of the film medium, unavailable to the novelist.

      What Patrick says about Verdi and Shakespeare applies here: Verdi’s music brings certain directly emotional qualities to the adaptation that are unavailable to the playwright.

      So the question the adapter faces is “what can I and the medium I choose do to add value to the original material?” Sometimes there is an answer to that question and sometimes there is not. And sometimes the adapter thinks he has the answer, but, once the thing is worked out, it turns out he got it wrong. If I understand Patrick correctly, he is saying that this opera is an example of the third of these possibilities: that Adès and his collaborators conceived what they thought was a valid approach to this specific adaptation, but they got it wrong.

      • Armerjacquino

        Agreed. I think it was the idea that the film didn’t ‘need’ intervention that perturbed me, but maybe that’s just a phrasing thing.

        • Laurence Dankel

          Should we tell Stephen Sondheim not to bother and stop writing now? Because there’s nothing he can add?

          • La Cieca

            Did anyone say that?

          • Pirelli

            Sondheim’s piece, from what we know so far, is based on TWO Bunuel films, so the approach will be different anyway. And, Sondheim being a huge film buff, I’m sure he has a handle on what he sees in terms of adaptation. One might say that Bergman’s “Smiles Of A Summer Night” didn’t need a musical adaptation either, but he made a fantastic musical from that film.

  • Camille

    This was quite a thoughtful consideration of the work and which likewise provoked many a thought on the subject which we kick around like an old can in our house--why are so many movies being remade into works for the lyric stage--? It used to be books (remember “The Great Gatsby”, anyone?), but reading is HARD, so…..

    This Thursday I’ll give it a listen and then decide. I’ve also consulted with the NY Times and read his honey-flavoured and dappled with rainbow-beam considerations, so I stand alerted to and advised of the risks.

    “O sheep, why dost thou leave me?” — just made my day. Loved it.

    A request to composers out there--—
    Somebody PLEASE make an opera out of “Suddenly, Last Summer”!!!!!!! We can get La Nebby to do the Liz part! La Cieca would lose her cookies at that!!

    • Pirelli

      Lots of plays have been made into operas and musicals -- now sure, you can read a play, but seeing it (as you would see a movie) is often better -- and we certainly know of cases where a composer SAW a play and wanted to adapt it. Movies are just another visual storytelling medium. I don’t see the problem. The reason that movies are being used as source material is because they are there to be looked at for source material. FYI, don’t forget that Gatsby has been done on film a few times too.

      Reading is only hard for the current moron in the White House. Many of us still read, including composers and librettists. It doesn’t mean we should be limited to that.

      • Camille

        Yes, of course they are. But What Mr PC James is asking is WHY? And WHY NOW? Or at least that is how I read it.

        (Verdi based La Traviata not on an old script laying about, but on a hit play and one rather scandalous as it pertained to fairly recent real-life events. It’s nothing new and we all know that.)

        WHY Marnie, is especially what i’d like to know, as I find it a rather unpleasant and creepy movie, the only reason to ever watch it is to drool over Sean Connery--whom I regret will be unable to recreate his part in the upcoming Mulhy opus.

        Well, that’ll all get ‘splained to us by Unca TT this time next year…I expect….

        • Pirelli

          I don’t think there’s any sort of formula as to “why” or “why now” other than a composer gets interested in a source and wants to set it to music. Now, I tend to think that the more formulaic “Title Of Film : The Musical” that we see on Broadway a lot in recent years is more commercial/producer driven (hence the MO of usually re-using the film’s title in the title of the musical -- they’re banking, literally, on that branding), but even so, many films have been used as sources for musicals simply because there was a composer interested in the idea. (Think “Nine” and “Sweet Charity,” both based on Fellini films, Sondheim’s “Night Music,” etc, which all sought to make their own creation but using a film as the source.)

          Let’s be obvious. Most standard rep operas could not possibly be based on movies, as movies hadn’t been invented yet. Now that they are as much a part of our popular entertainment culture as are books, plays, folk tales, and stories based on famous historical moments, I think they are fair game. Why did Puccini want to adapt Butterfly? Because he was moved by the play. No other agenda. Same goes for films.

  • Rick

    Interesting review that would seem to indicate a wealth of knowledge about both the opera. Two points: It is really super relevant (and fair to the opera) to keep comparing it to the opera? Could one also not say that the wonderful play that is Othello didn’t need to be made into an opera? Shouldn’t one rather look at whether the opera in itself is a worthwhile work of art, not how it compare to the film? I’m also sure many viewers and listeners of the opera does not know much of Bunuel and the film.

    And a smaller point: I’m pretty sure that the part of the Doctor was written specifically for Sir John Tomlinson -- so can you then really say that he was miscast? It seems that the reviewer compare him to how the part is in the film.

    • Pirelli

      Hearing the broadcast the other night, I did wonder if Tomlinson was just under the weather. His top range initially sounded shaky and a bit too woofy in particular. But I thought he gradually recovered from that, and ultimately I thought he did quite well.

  • Kenneth Conway

    Incisive review that, perversely enough, makes me want to see this production even more than I already did.

  • La Cieca

    “The latest effort of composer Thomas Adès, The Exterminating Angel, [is] pricey but inept, a Geostorm of the lyric theater.”

    • Camille

      Dog-whistle registers and carnivore casas = NO VA!

    • Leontiny

      I have been warned. Most excellent writing, thank you. Fortunately I only spent $23 on an HD ticket for this one.

      • Camille

        That’s most likely, I’ve decided for some time now, the best thing to do with these productions which are to be filmed. Somehow, they not only come through a little better -- but one hasn’t also lost such a chunk of change in the process. Small change for compensation but still better than getting rooked out of $100+++ for a seat.

        “O sheep,
        Why dost thou leave me?”