Last night at the opera

I have a thing for 20th/21st century opera – the first opera I consciously remember choosing to see was Giancarlo Menotti’s The Consul, and I have found myself loving Turnage’s Anna Nicole, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and pretty much everything by Benjamin Britten. Thomas Adés’ The Exterminating Angel (which premiered last year in Salzburg Festspiele, and after this ROH run goes next year to the Met) definitely is right there. It is based on the 1962 film by the same name by Luis Buñuel (set originally in Mexico City), and is as darkly funny as it is surreal and unnerving.

The story concerns a cultured party of upper middle class dignitaries invited to dine in the house of Nobile and Lucia after a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. As the guests start to arrive, the servants are leaving. As the guests start to arrive, the servants are leaving. The party sits down, polite but poisonous compliments are exchanged, fault lines are exposed. After the dinner, the guests are oddly reluctant to leave, deciding instead to spend the night exactly where they are, sleeping on the floor and on the sofas. As the morning dawns, it slowly becomes obvious to them that they are as unable as they were earlier reluctant to leave. Trapped in a single room without any conveniences, without understanding of their situation, and unable to break free, the group descends into chaos and anarchy – there’s a whole library of metaphors here, but no one agrees on what of.

There are sheep (both real and roasted) on the stage, there’s a bear, a bodiless hand wandering about, at one point during the night one of the characters floats across the stage suspended mid-air, Anne-Sophie von Otter eats John Tomlinson’s face and Sir Thomas Allen takes off his trousers. As the events take darker turn, one of the guests dies of unspecified illness, von Otter’s Leonora is driven insane and the young lovers about to marry in a week’s time kill themselves. Outside the house, the servants are just as unable to get in as the guests are to get out, and no one knows what is happening. It isn’t until the guests reenact the moment their became trapped, positioning themselves where they were in the beginning, repeating what they had said, that they become free (this reflects the beginning – both in the film and in the opera the arrival of the guests is shown twice; this has been mistaken as continuity error, but Buñuel replayed it intentionally). They rush to the street to greet their families and servants, and the story is brought to its uneasy conclusion – are they all trapped again, together, or simply seized by a moment of shared horror and anxiety?

The guests, stripped of their indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

This opera has a score that is the very opposite of the cleanness of Britten or Poulenc – it’s a rich tapestry of musical themes both original and shamelessly borrowed, every trick of orchestration thrown in, from 1/8 violins to ondes martenot to a flamenco guitar, the roles written for every voice type available. I afterwards chatted very briefly with one of the singers who said the roles were composed to these specific singers, and Adés has made some clever choices – the neurotic Francisco, in love with his sister, is sung by countertenor Iestyn Davis with what is brilliant characterisation, Anne-Sofie von Otter is spot-on as the externally stately but internally neurotic, fragile Leonora, Sir Thomas Allen is a fab as an aging maestro. And Audrey Luna pushes the limits with what a voice can do with some super high vocal acrobatics; it’s not always attractive, but it is effective. The score isn’t quite as atonal as some people, mostly on twitter, have made it to be – between the dramatic fireworks and musical jokes, there are some haunting moments, like the duet of the doomed young lovers, and the respective moments of madness of Leonora and Blanca. It’s big, lush, overwhelming, and likely to continue to divide opinions.

Well, this is a first: by a lucky coincidence, I was gifted a front row ticket, just few feet from the conductor’s podium. I have sat at the stalls occasionally, but never so close to the stage. It was very interesting – seeing the composer conduct his own work, watching the orchestra play, seeing the violists react to the audience reaction when the violinists switched from their regular violins to 1/8 sized ones.

Opera/concert/theatre outings these days often seem to come in twos. After Saturday’s opera, on Sunday some lovely Oxford people and I hopped in a car and drove through three counties to Effingham in Surrey to hear Sarah Connolly sing Handel with The English Concert in the assembly hall of St Teresa’s School. A bit boring venue (for me, Handel should be performed in baroque halls, in candlelight and powdered wigs), but the crowd and organisers were nice and welcoming (complimentary interval drinks? get out of here), and Sarah looked and sounded gorgeous. When Glyndebourne last week announced their 2018 season, everyone got excited as David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare is revived after 9 years; this is one of my favourite opera productions ever, and Connolly is devastatingly good in it (you can buy it on DVD to see for yourself). Her Va tacito last night proved that she still has all the imperious swagger to command it. I also loved her quietly humble As with rosy steps the morn from Theodora

Sarah Connolly and the English Concert. Note Madam’s flat shoes – during the first half, she sang “lady arias” in high heels, but changed into these to sing the trouser role pieces after the interval.

Yesterday was one of the nicest spring days in a long while; as we drove back to Oxford, the setting sun was in front of us; the sky pink and orange, the meadows silver with evening dew, with cow parsley and hawthorn in full bloom. Such lovely end to a lovely day.


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