Thomas Ades's The Exterminating Angel
From the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, Thomas Ades conducts a performance of his own new opera The Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Bunuel's surrealist film.
Tom Service presents Thomas Adès's new opera from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Based on an iconic film by Buñuel, the plot concerns a group of people who are invited to a post-opera dinner. When it's time to leave they find that they can't, despite there being nothing physical stopping them. The social niceties quickly break down as the guests begin to panic, and they have a death and a suicide pact on their hands. Will they work out how to defeat The Exterminating Angel and escape?
Thomas Adès himself conducts a truly stellar line up of soloists including Anne Sofie von Otter, John Tomlinson, Thomas Allen, Christine Rice and Sally Matthews. Tom Service is joined in the box by music critic Fiona Maddocks to talk about Adès's unique soundworld including Wagner tubas, ondes martenot, and a lot of percussion. Plus the composer talks about the gestation of his new work and the singers discuss the challenges of the virtuoso writing.
Leonora.....Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Blanca.....Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Nóbile.....Charles Workman (baritone)
Lucía.....Amanda Echalaz (soprano)
Raúl.....Frederic Antoun (tenor)
Doctor.....John Tomlinson (bass)
Roc.....Thomas Allen (baritone)
Francisco.....Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Eduardo.....Ed Lyon (tenor)
Leticia.....Audrey Luna (soprano)
Silvia.....Sally Matthews (soprano)
Beatriz.....Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Lucas.....Hubert Francis (tenor)
Enrique.....Thomas Atkins (tenor)
Señor Russell.....Sten Byriel (bass)
Colonel.....David Adam Moore (baritone)
Julio.....Morgan Moody (bass-baritone)
Pablo.....James Cleverton (baritone)
Meni.....Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Camila.....Anne Marie Gibbons (mezzo-soprano)
Padre Sanson.....Wyn Pencarreg (baritone)
Royal Opera House Chorus
Royal Opera House Orchestra
Thomas Adès (conductor).
At the mansion of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile guests are expected for dinner, but strange things are happening. The butler, Julío, fails to stop Lucas the footman from running away, and the maids Meni and Camila also attempt to leave. The Nobiles arrive after attending a performance at the opera. Among their guests are the evening’s prima donna, Leticia Maynar, and the conductor, Alberto Roc, with his wife Blanca, a famous pianist. Meni and Camila finally escape along with some other servants when the guests go into the dining room. At dinner, Nobile toasts Leticia, whom brother and sister Silvia and Francisco de Ávila jokingly call ‘the Valkyrie’. Lucía announces a first course of Maltese ragoût, which the waiter spills spectacularly on the floor. Not everyone finds this funny, least of all the elderly Señor Russell. Lucía decides to postpone her other ‘entertainments’, and a performing bear and a number of lambs are removed to the garden. The rest of the servants flee the house despite Lucía’s protestations. Only Julio remains behind.
In the drawing room Blanca performs a piece on the piano. A young engaged couple, Eduardo and Beatriz, dance, and Leonora flirts with her physician, Doctor Condé. When he declines to dance, she kisses him instead. The Doctor confides in Raúl Yebenes that Leonora is gravely ill and does not have long to live. Blanca’s performance ends to general acclaim and compliments.
The guests encourage Leticia to sing, but Señor Roc protests that she has performed enough for the evening. A number of guests prepare to depart, while Roc falls asleep. In the cloakroom Lucía gives her secret lover, Colonel Álvaro Gómez, a fleeting kiss. The guests become lethargic and distracted – although it is now very late, none of them
attempt to leave. Nobile is confused but behaves graciously, offering beds to anyone who wishes to stay. Señor Russell and the Colonel are horrified as some guests remove their tailcoats, but eventually they lie down like everyone else to sleep either on sofas or the floor. Eduardo and Beatriz retreat to a private corner to spend their first night together.
The guests wake the following morning. Silvia announces that she slept very badly. The Doctor examines Russell: the old man is dying. Julio is supposed to prepare breakfast but reports that no supplies have arrived at the house. When Lucía tries to take some of the ladies to her bedroom to freshen up, they do not make it past the threshold of the dining room. Blanca is worried about her children, but even she and her husband are unable to make the decision to leave. Silvia finds the unusual situation amusing, particularly as she knows her son is in good hands with his private tutor, Padre Sansón. A further attempt by the guests to leave fails when Julio approaches with coffee and the leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner. Leticia entreats the butler not to enter the drawing room, but in vain. Blanca is desperate, while Raúl sees no reason to overdramatize the situation. Francisco complains he cannot possibly stir his coffee with a teaspoon. When sent to procure coffee spoons, Julio also seems to have become a prisoner in the drawing room.
Evening approaches. Russell’s condition has worsened: he has fallen into a coma and needs urgent medical attention. Panic spreads among the guests: there is nothing more to drink, the outside world seems to have forgotten about them – and why did the servants leave the mansion the night before for no obvious reason? The Doctor pleads for calm, although even he seems to be losing his composure. Raúl becomes aggressive and holds Nobile responsible for the situation. Francisco is at the end of his tether and resists all attempts at pacification. Russell suddenly and unexpectedly regains consciousness, expressing his relief that he will not live to experience the ‘extermination’. Beatriz is troubled by the thought of dying amid all these people, rather than alone with Eduardo. Blanca, Silvia and Leticia share a strange experience in the walk-in cabinet, which has been repurposed as a toilet. During the night Russell dies. The Doctor and the Colonel haul his corpse into the cabinet, witnessed by Eduardo and Beatriz.
Police guarding the mansion drive back a crowd of people who try to come to the aid of those imprisoned inside. Although some people break through the police ranks, nobody is able to enter the house. In the drawing room Julio and Raúl burst a water pipe and the guests rush desperately to quench their thirst. Tormented with hunger, everyone becomes increasingly irrational. Blanca combs only one side of her hair, driving Francisco to hysterical desperation. When Francisco is unable to find the pills for his stomach ulcer, he immediately presumes that someone has hidden the box. Raúl goads Francisco about his relationship with his sister and triggers a volley of insults between the two men. Nobile tries to keep the peace, but this merely earns him recriminations. Leonora, who is in great pain, expresses her longing for the assistance of the Doctor and the Virgin Mary. Francisco is nauseated by Blanca’s smell and once again loses his nerves.
In her delirium Leonora sees a disembodied hand wandering around the drawing room. Trying to stop it, she stabs Blanca’s hand with a dagger. In the walk-in cabinet, Eduardo and Beatriz decide to die together. Señor Roc appears to molest Leticia, but Raúl accuses the Colonel instead. Nobile is injured during the ensuing scuffle. The lambs from the garden wander into the drawing room and the roaring of the bear terrifies the guests. The army has quarantined the mansion. Padre Sansón appears with Silvia’s son, Yoli, and the people demand that the boy be sent inside. Despite encouragement from the crowd, Yoli is unable to get into the house. The guests have slaughtered the lambs and cook them on a makeshift fire. Leonora recalls a premonition she had on the evening of the opera performance and attempts amagic ritual with Blanca and Leticia. It fails and she claims that innocent blood is needed. The bodies of Eduardo and Beatriz are discovered in the walk-in cabinet. During the course of yet another quarrel, Raúl hurls Francisco’s box of pills over the threshold of the drawing room. Silvia no longer takes any interest; cradling the cadaver of one of the lambs in her arms, she thinks she is rocking Yoli to sleep. The bear appears across the threshold. Gradually the idea takes hold among the guests that a sacrifice is needed to secure their liberation: Nobile must be killed. The Doctor and the Colonel try in vain to make the others reconsider. Nobile declares that he will sacrifice himself of his own free will, but Leticia interrupts him. She says she has realized that at this moment each one of them is in exactly the same place as when their strange captivity began. With her encouragement the others hesitantly repeat the actions and dialogues from that moment. When Leticia is then asked to sing once again, this time she actually does so. Together they approach the threshold – and they are able to cross it. The guests and the crowd outside the mansion encounter one an other. Their freedom will not last long.