Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fill in the blanks

The Exterminating Angel - Metropolitan Opera, 11/14/2017
Kaiser, Echalaz, Luna, Coote, Matthews, Davies, Rice, Gilfry, Bevan, Portillo, Antoun, Moore, Burdette, Tomlinson, Van Horn / Adès

Previous reviews:
Powder Her Face (Ades's 1995 debut opera)
The Tempest (his 2004 second opera)

The wholly unexpected thing about this US premiere is not its success - Ades's previous show here was at least a succès d'estime - but that so much of this came from reducing his music's aesthetic scope and ambition. Philip Henscher asked (in Power Her Face) for a brash score highlighting the retro-modernist tropes of compulsion, lust, and moral emptiness, and Ades delivered terrifically... if nevertheless emptily. Meredith Oakes a decade later gave Ades a much grander thing - her cleverly condensed version of Shakespeare's humane masterpiece (The Tempest) - but the new demands were not much suited to the composer, whose engagement was less with the people and more with the inhuman island itself.

A dozen years later Ades (who apparently picked the adaptation himself) and director/co-librettist Tom Cairns seem to have hit on the right vessel for Ades's aesthetic sensibility. This adaptation of Buñuel’s El Ángel Exterminador isn't as obviously low-nutrient as Powder Her Face, but it doesn't try for much more, either. Deeper human themes of desire, love, family, and death are quickly and suggestively touched on but just as quickly dropped; the action runs through the bare minimum of a story - people are trapped, then they are free - without offering cause, motivation, or even consequence; and all we get for overall significance is an undefined, vaguely menacing unease, again minimally anchored in the sound of the ondes Martenot and the big wood-grained central archway.

There's something in the zeitgeist, I think, that makes audiences accept and even prefer fragmentary suggestions of meaning to the thing itself. (Jonas Kaufmann's characteristic style - or rather the unhesitating acceptance thereof - is a notable performance-side example of this idiosyncrasy.) Perhaps it's resentment of a full-drawn story's (or phrase's) perfection - or of its imperfections - or just of its demand that you pay full attention to one specific course and meaning. Or perhaps a great many don't care about how it adds up as long as some authority assures them that it's a substantial sum. Whatever the cause, this current taste lets Ades check the boxes that were missing from his first effort without more-than-nominally pushing into unsuitable territory, while simultaneously letting the audience get the rush of appreciating contemporary art without having to engage with anything definite.

What does that leave, then? Mostly the same fluent, luxuriant Bergian textures of his prior stuff... but even this has been pared back from the prior show. Apart from some brief, largely choral/orchestral passages, what we mostly get is modernist recitative, recalling both the sound and overall brittle dialogue of Lulu's social scenes. It's a nice listen, pleasing to the ear while not unduly stressing it. But Berg's posthumous masterpiece is not just its clever recits, and certainly not just its social satire: its unpunished crimes, sensual wallowing, and talky-talk are just the forward action in what turns out to be an enormous, tragic tapestry of choice and consequence. No tragic climax appears either in music or action here, nor much self-understanding either.

Good, but not much. Is an opera by the more dramatically intent George Benjamin (whose Written on Skin is being performed in Philly this February before his new Lessons in Love and Violence debuts at the Royal Opera in May) going to appear soon at the Met?

*     *     *

The mixed Anglo-American cast all did their parts well, and much of the pleasure of this run was to their credit - though it's also to Ades's credit that he gave them music and musical context to show their gifts so well. I was particularly heartened to hear Tomlinson sounding not-at-all-finished at the age of 71.