Review: The Exterminating Angel, Royal Opera House

Live sheep are being paraded around the stage. I would be surprised, but considering this opera’s surrealist inspirations, one should come expecting the unexpected. From the appearance of bears to a disembodied hand wandering around the drawing room, Thomas Adès operatic interpretation of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel delivers an evening of bizarre occurrences set in an incomprehensible situation, which derive humour, but unfortunately become slightly repetitive.

A group of upper class opera goers return to their house for a dinner party, and end up staying the night. Yet in the morning, for some inexplicable reason, they are unable to leave the room. The plotline seems relatively simple. Confusingly simple. Yet as the evening progresses one realises that the situation becomes a platform for the exploration of various human emotions and behaviours. Two lustful young lovers consummate their passions due to the restrictions placed upon them, feuds and anger erupt and maternal love runs riot as mothers are prevented from returning to their children. The characters even resort to such atrocities as rape and dreams of bloodthirsty human sacrifice… as “the Doctor” profoundly puts it “this is the end of all human dignity, you are turning into animals.”

This frenzied atmosphere is embodied most effectively by the performances of the sopranos, who utilise their impressive vocal ranges in order to portray the piercing hysteria of the female characters. This is supported by the breaking down of musical structure, as the disintegration of melody and form reflects the psychological deterioration of the performers onstage. However, whilst this is effective in the latter stages of the opera, the opening scenes could have been delivered with a calmer approach in order to contrast the absurdity and panic of the final act.

However, despite the mania that unfolds onstage, The Exterminating Angel is essentially comic. The overt emotionality of the performers is extreme, and therefore laughable, especially when they swiftly interchange between contemplating suicide and refusing to stir their coffee with teaspoons. There are also witty remarks and allusions worked into the score, as one character incites the pianist to play something by Adès, and another suggests they kill the conductor, after all; “what’s one conductor less in the world?”

Despite these frequent humorous touches, The Exterminating Angel suffers from a lack of plot development. Whilst evidently restricted by remaining true to its filmic origins, this opera finds itself becoming tiring and predictable.

The Exterminating Angel played at The Royal Opera House until May 8.

Photo: Clive Barda