Before the lights dim, church bells begin tolling and, through a scrim, three live sheep are shepherded across the stage. This is not some bucolic Handel romp: Hildegard Bechtler’s stage set is the drawing room of an art deco mansion, and this scene is a prelude to two hours in which we witness the moral disintegration of the aristocracy.
Based on the 1962 film ‘The Exterminating Angel’ by Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, this British premiere from composer Thomas Adès and his librettist Tom Cairns (who also directs) depicts the increasingly debauched events that unfold when dinner-party guests are inexplicably trapped in a room overnight and beyond. Even their repeat arrival is faithfully re-enacted, along with a floating hand and the presence of a bear, recreating the absurdist tone of the original.
Adès’s imaginative score, which employs diverse influences from across the centuries, is rich, well orchestrated and, at turns, jarring, intense and very loud. The large orchestra, conducted powerfully by the composer, includes grand piano (mimed onstage by the disturbingly unhinged Blanca – mezzo Christine Rice) and off-stage percussion. The musical spirit of titular Angel (an existential force of inaction) is represented by the haunting sound of the ondes Martenot (a Theremin-like keyboard instrument), while thundering drums pound through an interlude after Act 1, setting the mood for the moral dissolution to follow.
While the vocal writing for the sopranos is very high, spiky and strident, it gives the slower, more melodic moments a magical sheen – most notably the extraordinarily haunting duet between doomed lovers Eduardo and Beatriz (tenor Ed Lyon and soprano Sophie Bevan). Dramatically, it’s a bit OTT and never quite caputures the film’s sense that these are real people gone mad. But it skilfully captures Buñuel’s claustrophobic atmosphere. And there are some great performances from this starry cast, which includes Charles Workman and Amanda Echalaz as posh party hosts; and countertenor Iestyn Davies playing the dispeptic Francisco – his ode to coffee spoons a delightful prelude to ravishing his sister Silvia (soprano Sally Matthews).