Much of the hype around the UK première of The Exterminating Angel revolved around the fact that there were sheep in it. Yes, actual sheep. On stage. And while I did indulge in this a little myself, they certainly provided an oddly eerie opening to the evening. As the audience took their seats, the sheep stood on the stage, and bells rung to induct us into the soundworld of the opera. From the beginning, as the servants of the house the opera is set in desperately make excuses to leave, there is a pervasive sense of uneasiness, which seems to be reinforced when the dinner guests enter, and repeat their introductions to one another – each character mimicking the others, and then the whole sequence repeating. At first, the proliferation of characters makes them a little hard to distinguish, but they quickly develop individual musical personalities. The society cattiness they display then begins to deteriorate into savagery as they find themselves unable to leave.
Adès hangs the plot on music that takes inspiration from many sources while still seeming fresh and intriguing. Various Strausses are here, and Bach’s Sheep may Safely Graze is given a disconcerting parody as the sheep we saw in the opening are roasted after their inexplicable appearance. The cast and orchestra give the music admirable shape, under the direction of Adès himself. The ensemble cast is littered with famous names, almost entirely outstanding in their performances. Sophie Bevan and Ed Lyon as Beatriz and Eduardo are given some of the most rapturously beautiful music in the opera, which they make full use of. It can be a little hard to find emotion in the bewildering landscape of this piece, but they make the young lovers’ suicide pact heartbreakingly touching. Iestyn Davies was also particularly effective in his nervous Francisco de Ávila, complete with possibly incestuous passion for his sister, and singing at one point an ode to coffee spoons.
Occasionally the cast faltered. John Tomlinson’s voice, after a long and illustrious career, sounds rather tired, almost unwilling to extend over the angularity of the phrases, but he inhabits his character as Doctor Carlos Conde, attempting to maintain some kind of order as he finds himself amid the savagery that desperation and deprivation produces amongst these cultured people. Amanda Echalaz as the hostess Lucía de Nobile also seemed to have problems with maintaining a sense of line, and her diction was enough to make me very glad of the surtitles. But the cumulative effect of the many voices in their collective despair was mesmerising. The instrumental writing, too, was finely crafted, particularly the prelude to Act II, which slowly took us deeper into the Cynthia Millar on the ondes Martenot (a precursor to the synthesiser) created a real sense of the unearthly throughout.
In the end, a re-enactment of part of their first evening in the room, guided by Audrey Luna’s opera singer Leticia Maynard, with stratospheric coloratura, allows them a way out. The odd repetitions we saw in Act I seem to crystallise in this moment, in this hair-raising suspense. Though the first time round she had declined to sing for them, Leticia now does, and the company make their baffled way out of the room. As they reunite with those who were waiting outside, the music continues to build, until the entire cast and chorus find themselves gathered under the arch that has been the centrepiece of the staging, seemingly trapped again. Adès and his librettist and the production’s director, Tom Cairns, seem reluctant to offer any answers about the happenings of the plot, but perhaps that isn’t the point. They leave us unsettled, baffled, and strangely moved by what is, in the end, a sharply drawn portrait of humanity under these fantastical circumstances.