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Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel

Opera in three acts by Thomas Adès (*1971)
Text by Tom Cairns (*1952) in collaboration with Thomas Adès
based on Luis Buñuel’s and Luis Alcoriza’s screenplay for the film El ángel exterminador by Luis Buñuel (1900–1983)

Work commissioned and produced by the Salzburg Festival, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and Den Kongelige Opera, Copenhagen
World premiere

With German and English surtitles

Duration of the opera approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes.


  • 28 July 2016, 19:00


  • 28 July 2016, 19:00


  • 01 August 2016, 19:00
  • 05 August 2016, 19:00
  • 08 August 2016, 19:00

Print programme (PDF)


Thomas Adès, Conductor
Tom Cairns, Director
Hildegard Bechtler, Sets and Costumes
Jon Clark, Lighting
Tal Yarden, Video
Amir Hosseinpour, Choreography
Christian Arseni, Dramaturgy
Alois Glaßner, Chorus Master


Los náufragos de la calle Providencia (The Castaways of Providence Street), the title originally chosen by Luis Buñuel for his film El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) made in Mexico in 1962, characterizes the protagonists with a powerful metaphor. The ‘castaways’ are a group of elegant individuals who have been invited to an exclusive dinner after a performance at the opera. The raft on which they drift, cut off from the world outside, is the salon of a luxurious villa owned by their host, Edmundo de Nobile. All around land is in sight, the door to the adjacent room is open; but although there are no obvious obstacles, no one is capable of crossing the threshold. Buñuel, who abhorred giving explanations of his films in words, remarked in typically laconic manner: ‘What I see in the film is a group of people who are unable to do what they want to do, that is, to leave a room. It is the inexplicable impossibility of satisfying a simple desire. This often occurs in my films.’ And yet: what causes this mysterious inability? And whose ‘victims’ are these people?

It all seems to start off normally, with the familiar rituals with which elite society likes to confirm its own status. But something is wrong: some rituals take place twice, as if developing a momentum of their own – for example the entry of the guests or the toast to the opera diva – and beneath the smiling surface of the cultivated, non-committal conversation lurk irrational impulses that violate the boundaries of etiquette, confidentiality and decency. These disturbing yet ultimately harmless faux pas give way to losses of control of a more menacing nature when the guests and their hosts become shut in as prisoners of the drawing room. As the individuals are increasingly thrown back on their instinct for self-preservation, the thin veneer of cultivation, social conventions and pretence starts to crumble. Despite their efforts to preserve morality and manners, aggression, barbarity, primitive instincts and passions break forth, accompanied by secret fears and cryptic images from the subconscious. The gap between the protagonists and the lambs and the bear that Lucía de Nobile has arranged as a special entertainment for the guests and which now run wild in the villa, diminishes …

When asked whether El ángel exterminador was a parable on the human condition, Buñuel answered that the film was in fact a parable on the ‘condición burguesa’, the state of the bourgeoisie. Though ruthless, the latter’s unmasking is staged with a great sense of humour. A sort of pessimistic humour also informs the protagonists’ success in finally managing to free themselves. But anybody breathing a sigh of relief with the ‘castaways’ and permitting themselves to indulge in relieved laughter will soon have the smile wiped off their faces …

With its fusion of realistic, surreal and religious elements, El ángel exterminador constitutes a summa of Buñuel’s oeuvre prior to his late French works. Thomas Adès has chosen the film as the basis for his third opera: ‘It’s territory that I like very much because it looks as though the people are in a room, but it’s not really about the room, they’re actually trapped in their own heads.’ The enclosed, self-contained situation links the subject with both of Adès’s earlier works for the stage: with the hotel room of the Duchess of Argyll in his chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995), described in a recent article in the Observer as already having the status of a modern classic, and with Prospero’s island in the Shakespeare-based opera The Tempest, which since its first performance in London in 2004 has also impressed audiences at the Met, the Vienna State Opera and other houses, further cementing Adès’s reputation as one of today’s most exciting (opera) composers. The librettist of The Exterminating Angel, Tom Cairns, who is also directing the premiere, has reduced the twenty-one main characters of Buñuel’s film to fifteen by merging a number of figures, still an astonishing number of protagonists, making The Exterminating Angel a true ensemble opera. In musical terms this means that it will deal less with the psychology of the individual figures than express the often abrupt changes in emotional temperature of the communication and human relationships, realizing individual and collective moods. ‘Particularly in opera, you have to deal with the creation of atmos-phere, of emotional atmosphere’, emphasizes Adès; however, this atmosphere should not have the character of decorative accompaniment but arise directly from the musical fabric. The fact that the situations in The Exterminating Angel constantly tip over into the absurd and surreal makes the story all the more attractive for Adès: the musicologist Richard Taruskin had already called him ‘a surrealist composer’ in 1999, and Tom Service, a writer on music intimately familiar with Adès’s works, admires how the composer casts even very familiar musical ingredients – major and minor chords, say, or sequences of simple intervals – in a wholly new light, making them sound ‘rich and strange’.

Christian Arseni
(Translation: Sophie Kidd)