The Exterminating Angel, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2017

Thomas Adès’ previous opera The Tempest, set on Prospero’s mysterious island, finds a counterpoint here in the ostensibly mundane setting of an elegant dinner party — but all is not as it seems.

All images ROH/ Clive Barda

Both operas feature very high soprano roles, Ariel in the Tempest and three of the ladies in Angel, again with the idea of being trapped, represented by a large rectangular arch, a threshold the guests cannot pass though nothing obviously stops them. The setting, based on Buñuel’s 1962 surrealistic film El ángel exterminador, is susceptible to various interpretations, and in an illuminating interview in the programme, Adès refers to “the exterminating angel [as] an absence of will, of purpose, of action … the force that makes us act has been turned off, like a switch”.

The doctor and Leonora

The music however is compelling, with full orchestra plus an ondes martenot beautifully played by Cynthia Millar. It is first heard after the guests walk in, suggesting something unnatural, the voice of the angel perhaps, like the sirens of Greek mythology entrapping the guests. The elegant social ritual that confines them in Act I was communicated by music that expressed itself to me in geometric thoughts about points at infinity that we can never reach. They become accessible at a higher level of symmetry, yet Adès uses the more limited symmetry of the Viennese waltz inviting you to stay with the social ritual itself. As Act I comes to an end it produces an extraordinarily soporific effect, before the curtain falls and we are loudly awakened to the following morning in Act II.

Silvia and her brother as things deteriorate

The story shows social ritual decaying as the guests find themselves short of food and drink — the Maltese ragout has already spilled spectacularly on the floor — and there are cries for blood. Yet in the end the lambs of the opening scene with which the host and hostess had intended to entertain their guests are barbequed to provide a unifying supper for the company. In the meantime entrances by the police, and even the army, hold back public concern while the quarantined guests live out a surreal existence.

The young lovers in their own world

Guests and hosts form an extraordinary team of fourteen singers, on stage all the time, with John Tomlinson as the doctor trying so hard to conquer the wild imaginings of others with sheer rationality. He and the young lovers performed by Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan are the most sympathetic characters in the opera, though the latter two end in a pool of blood. The aristocratic hosts played by Charles Workman and Amanda Echalaz have contrived a situation that swerves off the rails, and although the Leonora of Anne Sofie von Otter gets merely overexcited by her desire for the doctor, she really loses her cool later in trying to nail a strange hand moving around the room, stabbing the hand of the pianist, played by Christine Rice. With Sally Matthews as a young mother, Iestyn Davies as her brother, and Audrey Luna producing lovely high notes as the opera singer Leticia, this was a cast of huge distinction, with roles individually tailored to the singers. Superb musical direction by Thomas Adès himself brought out the compelling subtleties of this remarkable new opera.

Recovery with barbecued lamb

The text by Adès and Tom Cairns, who staged The Tempest in 2004, is based on Buñuel’s movie but involves a heightened use of language from his other poetry rather than brittle film dialogue, and the excellent programme interview with the two of them is required reading. Cairns also directed, with sets and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler and lighting by Jon Clark that were originally prepared for the Salzburg Festival last year, where it had its world premiere — a co-production with Covent Garden, the Met and the Royal Danish Opera.

Performances continue on various dates until May 8, with a BBC Radio 3 recording broadcast on May 27 — for details click here.

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