Thomas Ades “The exterminating angel” at the Salzburg Festival 2016

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The British composer Thomas Adès has gained international reputation with his opera compositions of The Tempest premiered 2004 at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Powder her Face premiered in 1995 at the Cheltenham Festival as well as conductor and pianist. He has been committed by the Salzburg Festival for their yearly contemporary opera. Together with director Tom Cairns, Thomas Ades has created the libretto based on Luis Buñuel script and film El ángel exterminador, produced in 1962. The composer has encountered the surrealistic works of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali at early age, his mother being a historian of art.


Around 15 years ago started the idea of creating an opera about this surreal story of a noble society being cut off from the outside world during having dinner together at the luxurious villa after an opera performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. Even if doors and windows are open, they are inexplicably unable to leave as well as liberated later on – according to Thomas Adès, the exterminating angel is “an absence of will, of purpose and action”. It is the interaction, the reaction and the problem handling of this society which is the fascination for the audience to watch at.

Tom Cairns and his team designed an elegant setting on stage, the noble society dressed in evening dresses all adapted to the 60ies as in the film – stage and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler. The moving stage gives constant changing angles of perspective. Sensible light design by Jon Clark strenghtens the obscure by setting into a nebulous alienating environment.

The music of Thomas Adès is driven by the mysterious enigma of the enclosure of the noble society. Before the opera actually starts, the Haus für Mozart is filled with spherical sounds by vibraphones. The musical narration of this apocalyptic story begins rather unspectacular. Wide open post romantic orchestral sound introduces to the setting.
Fast moving the noble society arrives and the satire of the upper class begins with stiff snobbish introduction and dark humor. The first two acts lack a clear musical definition of the characters as well as drama. Once after the intermission, the destruction of the civil society takes place and the mortal conflict of the imprisoned starts, including the killing of the sheep being whatsoever part of their enclosure.
The music gains presence, emotion, excitement and fascination. Harmonic, rhythmic and melodic sequences find together, marking single scenes being part of the evolution. Thomas Ades who is also the conductor of the evening dismantles the sound by a brilliant calibration of various instruments including electronics. His composition style shows the influence of the British dominating composer Benjamin Britten, but do not achieve his raffinesse and elaborated elegance.

Human voices are brought to their limits. The soprano Amanda Echalez as Lucia De Nobile, the host of the evening, Audrey Luna as the special guest primadonna Leticia Maynar and Christine Rice as pianist Blanca Delgado have to execute their very demanding parts mostly in extensive height avoiding sharpness or overpressure, followed by rich coloraturas. Charles Workman as Eduardo and Sophie Bevan as his beloved Beatriz impress in their lyric duet before killing themselves in despair. John Tomlinson returns on stage as Doctor Conde, trying to calm the society and to keep up law and order. All together the numerous cast presents a highly artistic performance supported by the Salzburg Bach Choir and the ORF Symphonic Orchestra.

The audience of the nearly sold out performance shows a strong acceptance and express a solid support for this extraordinairy effort of the Salzburg Festival to include and strongly present contemporary music. This year opulent and financial demanding world premier was realised in coproduction with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera House New York and the Kongelige Opera Kopenhagen.

by Helmut Pitsch

World premiere of The Exterminating Angel at the Salzburg Festival 2016 | 28 July - 8 august 2016
Photos credit: Monika Rittershaus

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