The Exterminating Angel | London, Royal Opera House

An upper-class dinner party, held after “the opera”: celebrated singers and conductors are in attendance, as well as minor royalty. But nobody leaves the drawing room, not that night, not the next morning, not ever. Nobody comes in either, and there is no explanation. The Exterminating Angel is inertia.

This is the UK premiere of British composer Thomas Adès’ third opera, based on the acclaimed film by Luis Buñuel. Adès’ atonal score is astoundingly expressive, with an orchestra that spills out of the pit and into the boxes either side, packed with percussion, harp and synthesiser, as well as 22 singing roles on stage. Though the relentless dissonance and long, high vocal phrases make this a challenging listen, Adès conducts his own work with humanity, bringing out his score’s endless expressive variety.

Significantly, there is always the nostalgia for the consonant music the dinner guests have left behind: one guest entertains with a romantic fantasia for piano; the streets outside are announced with Mariachi music; a poisonous love duet and lullaby in the third act signal how the guests have degenerated. Everyone in the enormous ensemble cast is world class, and the stratospheric soprano of Audrey Luna as the prima donna opera star is jaw-dropping.

As the weeks drag on, we see a guest smash a cello to pieces, while the grand piano burns as firewood. Guests contemplate how expendable conductors are, the soprano is anxious to be on time for her matinée, and one guest even requests a piece by “Adès”. Audiences can take what they want from this self-reference. Is the opera stage a prison? Is opera itself in a state of moribund inertia? Are the upper-class trappings of classical music no more than dangerous madness? This opera answers no questions, but it does offer a challenging, gripping, and extremely impressive adaptation of this dark, surreal nightmare.

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