The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House review *****

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The Exterminating Angel

Royal Opera House, 24th April 2017

Without a shadow of a doubt the third act of Thomas Ades’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is the most powerful piece of musical theatre that I have ever seen. And it is up there with the best theatre I have ever seen. Oh and Acts 1 and 2 aren’t half bad either.

This is really, really good. There are times when the interplay of Mr Ades’s hugely inventive score, the excellent singing (to my ears) across the ensemble, the monumental set design and the brilliantly conceived lighting (and other visual trickery) left me open-mouthed in astonishment. I would say speechless, but clearly even this pleb knows that goes with the opera house territory. I was stuck up in the cheap seats, so goodness knows what it was like downstairs. If the characters were caught up in some sort of “enchantment” from which they could not seemingly escape and for which there was no rational explanation, well so was I.

The score is brilliant. I am no expert and so have no insight into the musical structures. The experts can walk you through that. But I can hear how Mr Ades’s magpie-like approach to the entire history of art music (and beyond that into the religious music which preceded it) creates a sound world which not just supports the drama but possesses it. I could hear Britten, Shostakovich (the menacing drum beat at the end of Act 1) and Nielsen, I could hear Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartok. There are plenty of more romantic tinges and Wagnerian blasts. There are strained Straussian (J whizzed up with R) waltz motifs which keep recurring. There are C12 songs and Jewish poetry. There is some jazzy, distorted piano, there is a bit of flamenco. And there is a glorious chaconne like structure as we move towards a resolution that isn’t really a resolution at the end. There’s is a constant swirl of sometimes lovely, if bitty, melody and big, hairy rhythmic dissonance. And plenty of percussion and low woodwind which is a good thing. Blimey it’s all there, but there is still a clear compositional voice at work here so it is not the dog’s breakfast that it might be in other hands. But subtle (with one or two rare exceptions) it ain’t – and that’s what I loved.

And then there is the eerie presence of the ondes martenot, signifying the unexplained Exterminating Angel. I am guessing this is a tricky customer to play (I have heard it in a Turangalila, but not sure who was playing, as well as in the hands of Jonny Greenwood in the live soundtrack to There Will Be Blood – that reminds me must get on to my top 10 films). Here, in the hands of Cynthia Millar, it was perfect. Not overly involved to avoid sounding like the soundtrack to a dodgy episode of Tales of the Unexpected, but enough to suggest an other-worldly take on events. The use of bells to conjure up deeper forces is also a winner. And the solo piano parts are inspired.

And there are arias of a sort. memorably for me from Audrey Lina’s coloratura Letitia at the end, (based on the C12 Jewish song), from Sally Matthews’s Silvia de Avila whilst cuddling a dead sheep (not a phrase you hear too often) and from countertenor Iestyn Davies as Francisco de Avila as he gets wound up about the size of spoons (I kid you not). And the duet from Eduardo (Ed Lyon) and Beatriz (Sophie Bevan) is spell binding. Oh yes and the chorals are overwhelming.

Now I admit that this score is not going to wash over you, and will likely put you on edge, but that is the point of the drama. Thomas Ades and his librettist, Tom Cairns, who is also the director here, and clearly a talented chap as well, have taken Bunuel’s enigmatic film and drawn out most of its essences. They have crunched down the number of characters but it is still a big crew. They turn up for the dinner party after the night at the opera (cue a few goodish gags), find themselves unable to leave for no clear reason, descend into a still sometimes polite savagery, then leave but don’t really escape. But why all this happens is unexplained. Bunuel famously couldn’t or wouldn’t explain it. Why should he? Ades and Cairns incorporate the surrealist absurdity (sheep, bear, creeping hand, gushing water), capture the empty decadent entitlement of its bourgeois protagonists and reveal the thin veil between society and anarchy. It maybe comes across as more mysterious and intense, rather than slyly comic and satirical when compared to the film, but this reflects the incorporation of music (there is no soundtrack in Bunuel’s art films) and the psychological insight into the characters offered through explanatory arias. That’s the point of opera after all.

it is another belter of a set from Hildegard Bechtler after her recent triumphs at the Almeida. She loves a bit of revolve but here we also get a gigantic arch which separates the deco-ish interior where the dinner party guests are “trapped” and the exterior world of hoi-polloi and authority. There is also a nice whiff of Goya for me in the visual effect from having a lot of people on stage a lot of the time and in the lighting colour palettes.

So all up this is outstanding. I don’t like most opera and wouldn’t willingly slash out 120 quid for a decent seat at Covent Garden. It isn’t a relaxed evening and you won’t come out humming. Whilst there is wild variety in the score, there is less in the pace and tone of the drama. Stuff doesn’t get resolved. It also probably helps if you have an eclectic musical taste. But if you want a sustained and heightened musical and theatrical experience, have the means and have a reasonable expectation about what you might be letting yourself in for, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Oh and make sure you pitch up to one of Mr Ades’s Beethoven symphony conducting stints at the Barbican with the Britten Sinfonia. This musical brain applied to the greatest music ever written. Sure fire winner.

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