“The Exterminating Angel” 4.5 stars out of five.
Before Nov. 18, I had never seen an opera. I had some classical vocal training when I was a teenager, and I grew up with musicians and singers who would eventually perform on national stages. I had the pleasure of seeing mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves perform live, whose rendition of “The Habanera” from “Carmen” brought me to tears. I knew how to dress for one, yet I had never been to a full-out opera. However, when I learned that the Metropolitan Opera in New York was performing a new production based on one of my favorite films, I had to make an effort to see it.
The Met kicked off its 2017-18 season with the American premiere of “The Exterminating Angel,” based on the 1962 surrealist film by Luis Buñuel. Composed and conducted by Thomas Adès and directed by Tom Cairns, the opera takes place during a dinner party of the upper class following a night at the opera. Due to an unknown supernatural force, the dinner guests find excuses not to leave the room. Secrets, animistic behavior and desperation take over as the guests stay inside for days.
Talk about a meta day to remember, I watched this live performance at Cinemark 20 and XD in Moosic. The experience reminded me of the path for “Hairspray” – it was first a John Waters cult classic that was adapted as a Broadway musical that was adapted for the screen that was broadcast live on network television. I had wanted to see “The Exterminating Angel” live at the Met, but once The New York Times gave it a stellar review, tickets were scooped up fast. Having the “Live at the Met” series available at local theaters brings culture within the masses’ reach, so I appreciated the feeling of a live performance without having to don fancy clothes and a pair of opera glasses. I could freely watch high art unfold while slurping on a blue raspberry Icee.
The translation from celluloid to stage keeps Buñuel’s satirical commentary on the bourgeois intact. With fashionable mid-century furniture and extravagant attire, the stage is set up for disintegration as clothes and upholstery are ripped to shreds. At the start, the servants flee the house out of fear as Edmundo de Nobile (Joseph Kaiser) and his wife, Lucia (Amanda Echalaz), are about to host their upper-class friends for a grand, late-night dinner in honor of opera singer Leticia Meynar (Audrey Luna).The servants are much like a chorus in a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, but the dinner guests are oblivious to what is about to happen.
Just about every society title is represented with each guest, and with 15 principal performers, not many of the performers have individual moments. It really feels like a greater force is preventing this high-society crowd from leaving their setting. An exception to the group mentality feeling is saved near the end as the audience hears what makes Meyner a great singer. Luna projects exceptionally high notes, and they sound so naturally good in this setting.
The music behind the opera is equally spellbinding and nightmarish, as tiny violins cut through the tension, crazy percussion keeps the time, and a haunting ondes Martenot – an early 20th-century electronic keyboard that sounds similar to a theremin – is enchanting.
My only complaint would be that the opera is in English. Granted, Cairns and Adès are British, and the cast is composed of British, Canadian and American performers. However, the opera’s primary source is Buñuel’s take on Spanish and Mexican society during the Spanish Civil War. Character names maintain their cinematic heritage, and the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s are still there. But honestly, English is not the best sounding language in song.
Nevertheless, if you are a cinephile, an arts fan or both, you should see “The Exterminating Angel” for its combination of style, chaos and beautiful music.
An encore presentation of “The Exterminating Angel” will screen Wednesday at Cinemark 20 and XD and at Regal Dickson City Stadium and IMAX.