16 November 2017

Adès’ ‘Exterminating Angel’ at the Met

An “Enchanted” Beginning:
Act I at the Met.

As an event, the Metropolitan Opera’s presentation of Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel has pleased me. Boosted by a rave review in the New York Times and by worldwide press coverage of soprano Audrey Luna’s record-breaking achievement — reaching the highest note ever sung on the Met stage — the production has attracted large audiences, which isn’t always the case for new operas. (Indeed, for any opera written after Madama Butterfly and Der Rosenkavalier, Turandot [1926] being the notable exception.) Even more encouraging: the audiences have skewed younger than is typical for the Met or most other opera companies. When I started attending the opera, I was 13 years old and very often the youngest person in the auditorium. What’s dismaying is that, on many nights, more than four decades later, that’s still true — but not for Exterminating Angel.

Beyond this, I welcome the Met’s casting so many singers whom I admire as artists and whom I know and like as people, offstage. But more on that in a moment.

Audrey Luna’s feat has attracted all sorts of attention.
Seen here, NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.

About the opera itself, I’m of many minds. It’s a curious choice of subject matter to begin with, and I note that I still haven’t seen Luis Buñuel’s film. Certain choices seem dictated by what was in the movie, rather than the needs of this piece in the theater. An example is the arrival of a massive chorus at the start of Act III; the chorus returns at the end of the act, after a costume change. Yes, the opera does open up as a consequence, and we see what’s going on beyond the claustrophobic confines of the Nobiles’ home. Maybe we’ve had enough of the experience of being trapped in one room, as the principal characters are — though an argument can be made to the contrary, that we should remain trapped, sharing that psychological experience. On a practical level, however, Exterminating Angel — which saw its premiere at the Salzburg Festival, with the same production and many in the cast proceeding to Covent Garden and the Met, with a new cast to follow at Royal Danish Opera — will be prohibitively expensive for many other companies to produce. Is the movie’s precedent sufficient justification? I wonder.

Adès has never been one to eschew attention-grabbing stunts, which is one reason we know who he is, whether or not we’ve seen his work. A musical blowjob in his first opera, Powder Her Face, garnered all sorts of headlines, and more when the opera was recorded, and yet more when the opera has been produced subsequently. Exterminating Angel contains other such épater-les-bourgeois ingredients, and indeed the entire opera both shocks the bourgeoisie and depicts the bourgeoisie itself in shocking circumstances.

To an extent, even those record-breaking high notes are just another stunt. They don’t tell us very much about the character, an opera singer named Leticia, though certainly those notes do contribute to an overall atmosphere of otherworldliness. And nobody who’s a fan of bel canto can argue with the compositional device of generating excitement through feats of vocal derring-do. Leticia isn’t that far removed, really, from Tonio in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment and his high Cs. (His high notes do make plenty of dramatic sense, however: Tonio is ecstatic at what he believes to be his good fortune.)

Certain of Adès’ compositional choices puzzled me, and while the language in this opera (to a libretto by the composer and Tom Cairns, who stage directed) is infinitely superior to that of the ludicrous doggerel in his The Tempest, he doesn’t seem any more concerned with whether the audience understands the singers (why bother, when there are titles?), whether his prosody mimics ordinary speech or departs from it, or whether he needs to make any clearly comprehensible choices about any of these matters. Another conductor might draw out more meaning from the score, but the composer himself is in the pit.

Deliverance: Act III.

Yet there are vast portions of the score that pleased me immensely. Adès shows mastery in the most intimate (a lullaby, a love duet for a dying couple) and the grandest passages (a hair-raising march number). He gives almost every character a spotlight. He resorts to a few easy tricks (the wind-up toy orchestration of the scene in which some characters indulge their most compulsive behaviors); and while the use of the ondes martenot doesn’t seem terribly original (we’ve heard it, or something like it, in old horror movies), it’s certainly effective. The score may not invite but it does welcome repeated hearings: I’ve seen the opera twice so far, and I expect to see the HD simulcast on Saturday afternoon.

Now, about that cast. When I was a kid listening to Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, it never occurred to me that I would ever know any singers. I mean, I liked Star Trek, too, but I never expected to know any Vulcans. The very idea was pure fantasy. And yet today I know quite a few of these people, my life is all the richer for them, and some of them are on the Met stage right now.

Case in point: Audrey Luna herself, who sang Zerbinetta in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos, in which I also appeared. She’s one of the loveliest people I know, and a wonderful singer. The role of Ariel in The Tempest, which Audrey sang at the Met, taps into some of her so-high-only-Jesus-can-hear extension, and as soon as she made her entrance in Exterminating Angel, I thought, “Well, Adès certainly got her number when she sang Tempest.” Her ability to extend her upper register while retaining a pleasing timbre and strength is remarkable, and while Exterminating Angel is, as I say, an ensemble piece, it is ultimately Leticia’s show: her big scena is integral to the finale ultimo. “She’s one of only two people on earth who can sing this role right now; the other is her cover,” mused one of her co-stars.

Tenor David Portillo, who sang Tonio in Daughter of the Regiment as part of the same festival season in Fort Worth, has reached an extraordinary level in his singing these days, as further demonstrated in Handel’s Ariodante at Carnegie Hall last spring. There’s an effortless sweetness to his singing that makes him a dream to listen to in the role of Exterminating Angel’s ardent fiancé — and he, too, is a lovely person offstage. As the elderly Señor Russell, bass Kevin Burdette, whom I saw most recently in Santa Fe Opera’s Die Fledermaus in August, adds yet another distinctive portrayal to a gallery that also includes an ogre, a jack-in-the-box, a Mormon patriarch, and an aesthetic poet — just a few among those that I’ve seen.

David Adam Moore with Amanda Echalaz (Lucia Nobile).

But the greatest satisfaction of hearing Exterminating Angel must be the success of baritone David Adam Moore. I've followed his career ever since I saw him in Neal Goren's production of Dido and Aeneas, and in turn his work has introduced me to the work of other remarkable artists, such as the designer Vita Tzykun, the composer David T. Little, and even the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (whom I first heard co-starring with David at Glimmerglass, and whom I heard again recently, singing and dancing exquisitely to Pergolesi).

Every now and then, David and I get together for coffee to catch up on each other’s news. A while back, he told me about Exterminating Angel. The announcement wasn't official (“You can't tell anybody” — and I didn't!), but he was slated to make his Salzburg debut as Colonel Gómez in the world premiere, with a real possibility that he’d follow this by repeating his role for his Covent Garden and Met debuts.

As it was foretold, so it has come to pass. His musicality, his bearing, and his innate authority are ideal for the role. And the rest of us have confirmation that sometimes good things do happen to good people. I couldn’t be happier.

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