Time hangs heavy in The Exterminating Angel. Days or weeks for the characters; two and a half hours for the audience. The decision by composer Thomas Adès to adapt Luis Buñuel's surreal satire of 1962 is imaginative and notionally exciting, but the admixture of opera to a static tale of the absurd makes for a foggy entertainment.
Shortly before Lucia and Edmond's society dinner party, the downstairs staff flee their mansion with the sixth sense of animals running from a tsunami. Once the dozen guests arrive (of whom three are musicians: a pianist, a conductor and an opera singer) some mysterious force makes them incapable of leaving again. At first they rationalise their inertia—they are merely exercising freedom of choice—but gradually it dawns on them. They're stuck.
Buñuel's movie is a fiercely comic critique of social entitlement and the protective isolationism that cocoons it. On paper the material lends itself to opera: it's dense in opportunities for a distinguished ensemble cast, with a heightened vein of tragedy in every character and a through-line of action that's like witnessing death in slow motion.
The Exterminating Angel is an international co-production, and Tom Cairns's staging scored a hit at last summer's Salzburg Festival. It arrives at the Royal Opera House garnered with critical plaudits and was greeted by the Covent Garden audience with wild approval, so I feel duty-bound to join in. Almost. The composer's orchestrations are undeniably bold and scintillating, and he has the knack of tempering musical challenge with approachability. As in his first operatic success, Powder Her Face, Adès depicts the downfall of privilege through music of dramatic honesty into which he stirs liberal helpings of pastiche. The spectators' pleasure whenever snatches of a popular style cut through the texture was palpable.
'A heartbreaking lullaby to her absent child'
Theatrically, however, it is uninvolving. The libretto, also by Cairns, devotes swathes of the first act to exposition but then leaves his characters uninhabited. Mostly they are archetypes whose back-story and social interplay are left undeveloped. Unlike the souls who populate the plays of Samuel Beckett, it is hard to care about any of them.
Iestyn Davies and Sally Matthews buck the trend as an off-kilter brother and sister, for each is given some meaty material to chew on. The countertenor has OCD and a sister complex; the soprano sings a heartbreaking lullaby to her absent child. Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan also excel as a loved-up couple whose locked-in passion for each other is both their making and their breaking; their love-death scene is one of the few moments when Cairns and designer Hildegard Bechtler open out the production.
Christine Rice as the pianist sings with exemplary clarity and expression, whereas Amanda Echalaz as the hostess makes one grateful there are surtitles, even for an opera in English. (The soprano's occluded delivery may not be entirely her fault, since Adès occasionally swamps the text in his ensemble writing.) Veteran knights of the realm John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen are given little to work with.
There's some above-the-stave virtuosity from Audrey Luna as a high-flying, high-lying opera singer. In places she sounds uncannily like the Ondes Martenot , the electronic instrument of warbling soundwaves that Cynthia Millar plays from one of the side boxes.
What exactly is the Exterminating Angel? Adès describes it as an 'absence', although it makes more sense to see it as the thief of free will. We, like the sheep who safely graze as the audience enters, go astray and follow each other blindly towards annihilation. As a parable for our time, that's chilling.
The Exterminating Angel runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 8 May.