Salzburg Festival. An audience streams, expectant, into the Haus für Mozart; their soundtrack a peal of bells ringing out across the town where Mozart himself was born 260 years ago. The atmosphere is charged. A theatrical world premiere is about to take place – a new opera by a living composer endowed with his own prodigious gifts. The work is based on a masterpiece of 1960s Surrealist cinema: Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel”. Three generations of operatic luminaries will share equal billing in the sort of gilded ensemble not seen regularly since Mozart’s day, when soloists were paid by the aria and the vocal spoils tended to be evenly divided. It’s not an everyday affair.
The audience members take their seats. Salzburg’s bells continue to peal. A man comes onto the stage, leading some live sheep. He waits. The sound of the bells begins to blend with the tuning of the orchestra. The composer Thomas Adès, who is also the conductor, appears. He bows, turns to the stage. Still the bells peal, now unmistakably part of the texture of the opera itself, and suddenly it is night-time in a luxurious mansion on a street called Calle de la Providencia. Elegant guests – a doctor, a diva, a maestro, two lovers – arrive at the home of Lucia and Edmundo Nobile for a dinner party that they will later, for mysterious reasons, discover they can never leave.
Born in 1971, Adès published his first piece of music when he was 18. By his early 20s he was producing orchestral, vocal and chamber works to rapturous acclaim. In 2000 he won the $200,000 Grawemeyer composition award, the youngest-ever recipient of this prestigious American prize. But his interest in Buñuel, who died in 1983, goes back still further: Adès’s mother, Dawn, is a leading scholar of Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp, and he grew up immersed in the Surrealist and Dadaist movements with which the iconoclastic, anti-fascist, anti-bourgeois Spanish director is often associated. Adès first encountered “The Exterminating Angel” when he was about 13 and has long considered it an ideal basis for opera.
Much to the work’s eventual benefit, Adès let Buñuel’s biting mix of satire and surrealism percolate for over two decades. His first opera, “Powder Her Face” (1995), was about the scandal-engulfed Duchess of Argyll. It has since been produced more than 40 times around the world. Then in 2004 came a hastily assembled take on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, co-produced by the Royal Opera House, London, and the Metropolitan Opera, New York. “The Exterminating Angel”, which the composer has described as “a child of those two”, marks an astonishing departure: it is well worth the wait. “This was a momentous evening: a turning- point for Adès and, it felt, for opera itself,” wrote one leading critic in Salzburg. Virtually all her colleagues agreed.
Starting on April 24th, “The Exterminating Angel” is to be revived at the Royal Opera House, which co-produced the original performance along with Salzburg, the Met and the Royal Danish Opera. Directed by Tom Cairns and designed by Hildegard Bechtler, it is a big, complex beast. The 22-strong cast, which includes Sir Thomas Allen, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sir John Tomlinson, Iestyn Davies and Sophie Bevan, will be reunited for the London run – along with those live sheep. Meanwhile, Adès’s orchestration calls for vast and unusual forces: an arsenal of percussion, eight miniature violins, a solo guitar and, to evoke the nameless, mystifying, ensnaring force of the “exterminating angel” itself, an ondes martenot – that singularly eerie early electronic instrument, played here by the exemplary Cynthia Millar. (At one moment of particularly high drama, Adès indicates in the score that the ondes martenot should sound “as if swallowing the orchestra”.)
Adès’s intellectual virtuosity is a close match for his musical genius, yet he generally manages to be neither pretentious nor superior. He incorporated house music into his 1997 orchestral work “Asyla” and chose Girls Aloud’s pop hit “Love Machine” for the civil-partnership ceremony he shared with the Israeli video artist Tal Rosner in 2006. “What on earth would be the point of writing only for experts?” he once asked. “Anyone with ears can follow a piece of music if it’s done right.” Adès invariably does it right. An adherent to Stravinsky’s principle that “a good composer doesn’t borrow, he steals”, this score engages in typically buoyant dialogue with the past, recalling everything from Straussian waltzes and Wagnerian harmonies to courtly dances, ritualistic Spanish drumming and flamenco – via some superhuman vocal writing, with Audrey Luna’s Leticia having to scale stratospheric top Es and Fs. It is inventive and urgent and alive. And then, a little over two hours later, after the fatally prevaricating dinner guests have descended into savagery as they found themselves paralysed behind an open door, the opera “ends” with a mammoth orchestral chaconne, a hypnotic baroque dance form that builds over a repeated base line.
Yet nowhere to be seen on the final page of Adès’s score is the “double-bar” that traditionally marks the conclusion of a piece of music. There is no solution, no resolution. The symbolism is ominous. Opera is often accused of complacency; of having no relevance to the contemporary world. More than half a century after Buñuel’s film, the apocalyptically self-destructing mood of “The Exterminating Angel” could not feel more timely or more prescient.
Royal Opera House, London, Apr 24th-May 8th. Metropolitan Opera House, New York, Oct 26th-Nov 21st