Twenty-First Century Buñuel: From Screen to Stage—The Metropolitan Opera’s Production of The Exterminating Angel (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton

Disgruntled dinner guests on the threshold between bourgeois hell and “the real world.”

Jorge Luis Borges’s celebrated short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” offers an object lesson to critics confronted with the task of assessing the art of adaptation and the subtle changes wrought when a work of art in one medium becomes transmogrified into another medium. Borges’s story poses the fanciful conundrum of responding to a twentieth-century French writer’s attempt to produce a line-by-line replication of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. This literary parable argues that a concerted effort to duplicate the contours of an older work in a new era, imbued with a distinctive sensibility, will entail an inevitable transmutation.

Thomas Adès’s dazzling, although occasionally puzzling, operatic adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, which had its American premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in October, is dauntingly faithful to its source but manages to simultaneously betray it. Both cryptic and laced with black humor, Buñuel’s film recounts an exceedingly odd dinner party at the palatial Mexico City home of Edmundo and Lucia de Nobile. The servants flee before the sumptuous dinner is served and, for unexplained reasons, all of the guests become stricken by a malaise that renders them unable to leave the house. Anticipating the skewering of the bourgeoisie in subsequent Buñuel films such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, the upper-class cast of characters, which include an opera singer, a pianist, a doctor, and a pair of doomed lovers, gradually reveal barbarous tendencies that lie below a veneer of civilized suavity. The desperate partiers demolish walls to gain access to water pipes, butcher available sheep, and drug themselves into a stupor. Yet critics have erred in comparing this breakdown of decorum to the mayhem that afflicts unsupervised children in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Unlike Golding’s feral children, Buñuel’s characters degenerate into monsters because of the constrictions of their class, not because they’ve capitulated to a decadent “human nature” which exemplifies an abstract notion of evil.

After a genteel beginning, decorum eventually breaks down among partygoers in The Exterminating Angel.

While Adès and his librettist Tom Cairns are remarkably faithful to the basic structure of Buñuel’s film, the tone of the opera is radically different. As Alex Ross wrote of the London production in The New Yorker, Buñuel’s original conception was surrealist while Adès’s vision is expressionist. The film’s escapades are generated by a sardonic playfulness while the opera’s protagonists endure an intense ordeal that is depicted with a dogged earnestness. Except for incidental instrumental music, Buñuel is not interested in reinforcing his characters’ foibles with anything other than Gabriel Figueroa’s deceptively artless cinematography.

By contrast, Adès plunges the operagoers into an aural sensorium by flaunting a host of musical influences; Spanish motifs commingle with strains that seem derived from composers ranging from Mahler to Benjamin Britten. Leticia (aka “The Valkyrie”), the flamboyant opera singer and the guest of honor, is a fairly comic, flat character in the film. In the opera, she is played by the virtuosic coloratura soprano Audrey Luna and is the source of considerable pathos. (According to The New York Times, Luna hits the highest note in the history of the Met.) Adès also imbues the penultimate moments leading up to the suicide of the despairing lovers Beatriz and Eduardo with a swoony romanticism that seems distinctly un-Buñelian Their plangent duet hints at a yearning for transcendence that would have struck the strictly materialist Buñuel as incongruous.

Wealthy dinner guests eventually shrug off their inertia and flee their self-imposed prison in The Exterminating Angel.

There’s also a slightly un-Buñuelian element injected into the opera’s conclusion. Tom Cairns’s inventive staging, and an ingenious set, separates the feuding guests from the outside world with the aid of a huge arch that almost resembles a traditional proscenium. Towards the end of the opera, Leticia sings some verses borrowed from the thirteenth-century poet Yehuda Halevi that express her and her fellow guests’ yearning for an almost metaphysical deliverance from their overweening inertia. When Buñuel’s guests finally escape from their (ostensibly self-imposed) confinement, they find themselves in a church where a mass once again immobilizes them as police on the streets fire on presumably anti-bourgeois protestors. Adès’s self-satisfied protagonists hold out hope for some sort of liberation from their claustrophobic plight. For Buñuel’s more benighted, slightly more decadent, bourgeois refugees, there’s truly no exit.

Richard Porton's revised second edition of Film and the Anarchist Imagination will be published in 2018.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1