Extermination, Salvation, Frustration: Ades and Massenet

In the end, I caved. I had fully intended to honor my oath, sworn and upheld last season, to waste no more time, energy, and money on the new operas the Met hauls into view once per annum. It was a fully informed pledge, taken after many years of obligatory open-mindedness, and it served me well, but all too briefly. “Man up,” I said to the mirror one day. “We really need new operas.” I did have an excuse. On my previous encounters with the operas of Thomas Adès—the EMI recording of Powder Her Face and the Met production of The TempestI had detected in the music’s gestures and structures something of a genuine theatrical sensibility, a feel for the scenic event. In the writing for the Duchess in Powder (a compelling performance by Jill Gomez) I even heard the gift of not merely sympathizing with a difficult character, but of getting inside her and writing from there. That gift, the supreme talent of a composer Adès has derided (Verdi!—no Brownie points there), is nowhere to be heard nowadays. So, although the world of Powder will not draw me back except in the line of duty and The Tempest fell well short of its daunting task, I forked over the bargain tariff of $87.50 for a front-row Dress Circle box seat for the Nov. 7 performance of The Exterminating Angel.

I have never seen the famous Buñuel film that is the opera’s source. Naturally, I’ve by this time boned up on the sources of all the operas that come around in canonical canon—plays, poems, mythical epics, etc., by Shakespeare, Schiller, Hugo, Pushkin, Sophocles, et al.—and have usually done the same when a historical rarity comes along. With new operas, though, if  I don’t already know the material, I like to pretend I’m Mr. Average Operagoer, and see if the work makes its case to him, just as a new play or movie or dance piece would need to do. In that respect, Exterminating Angel presented an immediate obstacle: it introduced many characters, major and minor, almost immediately, and except for those of a couple of the low-voiced men, scarcely a word from any of them was understandable. If a composer is writing a through-written, dialogue-based opera (there are in fact a few set pieces, but with a single exception they, too, are dependent on the word, not on vocalization), it does behoove him to give the singers a fighting chance at comprehensibility. Mr. and Ms. Average Operagoer probably use the subtitles. Perversely, I like to focus on the stage and listen for sung words, words that are simultaneously captured and released by the beauty and power of the singing voice. That way, the onstage events and emotions come directly and uninterruptedly to me, and the verbal content does not constantly assert itself over the music via the scanning eye. So I leave captions to foreign movies.

After a while, I found that with some guidance from the program’s synopsis, I could distinguish the female characters by the colors of their dresses, considerately selected for ID purposes. The men, in evening dress and, except for the basses, vocally indistinguishable pending more  extended inspection, revealed themselves grudgingly, in a couple of cases only after intermission and further consultation with the program. Still, the general progression of the action came into hazy focus as the evening went on, and the story’s intended cumulative force could be detected. Because of the film’s standing, the dramatic situation of this work is an item of cultural familiarity: at a late-night post-performance supper in an elegant home, the guests are prevented from leaving by a mysterious force. Then, after a lengthy detainment in the course of which they are reduced to the condition of starving savages, they are inexplicably released, to wander dazedly back into the outside world. The mood is Existential (upper- and lower-case “e”) and Absurdist (ditto with the “a”).