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Thomas Ades’ The Exterminating Angel review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘disappointing’

Christine Rice, Audrey Luna and Sally Matthews in The Exterminating Angel at Royal Opera House, London Christine Rice, Audrey Luna and Sally Matthews in The Exterminating Angel at Royal Opera House, London
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Premiered at the Salzburg Festival in July 2016, Thomas Ades’ third opera is based on the 1962 surrealist film by Spanish director Luis Bunuel.

It reaches the UK in a transfer of the same production, directed by the work’s co-librettist, Tom Cairns.

At 46 Ades is the most widely acclaimed British composer of his generation; the co-producers of this new work – who include the New York Met – testify to his eminence. His idea of turning the film into an opera apparently goes back some 15 years.

There’s always a challenge involved in moving a work regarded as a masterpiece in one medium into another – but by the end of this particular evening one is left wondering what compelled Ades to set the film to music in the first place.

The brilliance that marked every note of his smaller first opera, Powder Her Face, is only intermittently apparent. Bunuel tells his story in just 90 minutes. The operatic version, including a 25-minute interval, is nearly twice as long.

The plot shows guests at an upmarket dinner party unaccountably discovering that they are unable to leave the room at the end of the evening: as days pass, their grip on civilised standards of behaviour becomes – disturbingly – ever looser.

Cairns and Ades stick pretty well to the script while slimming it down – the film’s 17 guests are reduced to 12, which still allows a host of notable singers to appear in a production whose musical values are impressively high: Ades himself conducts.

His score makes widespread use of the parodistic techniques that have regularly stood him in good stead, and there’s one particularly ironic quotation – when some inexplicably present sheep are on the point of being sacrificed by the now starving guests, we hear Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze. Elsewhere there’s a preponderance of waltz rhythms reminiscent of Johann Strauss but orchestrated as if by Richard Strauss.

While the score contains plenty of ingenious and inventive moments, an overall sense of musical structure or purposeful dramatic momentum is less evident.

Many of the individual performances are nevertheless remarkable. Ades’ vocal writing is demanding, often taking singers right to the ends of their ranges and sometimes keeping them there. Amanda Echalaz’s impassioned soprano makes something exceptionally vivid out of Lucia, the dinner party’s hostess.

Anne Sofie von Otter brings bags of character to the ailing Leonora. Audrey Luna’s extraordinary facility in her top register helps make opera singer Leticia extraordinarily memorable. Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan gain sympathy as doomed young lovers Eduardo and Beatriz.

Taken as a whole, the staging is a remarkable company achievement, with numerous standouts, but the opera itself doesn’t really hit the nail on the head.

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Despite some fine performances, this new operatic version of Bunuel’s film is a disappointment