The post-modern ascendancy of utterly inert opera

The post-modern ascendancy of utterly inert opera


norman lebrecht

May 09, 2017

I saw the last performance of the Covent Garden run of The Exterminating Angel last night and was neither surprised nor disappointed.

Thomas Ades’s opera, based on a movie by Luis Bunuel, describes a disastrous dinner party (or possibly an opera) that no-one is able to leave, despite the doors being open at all times.

For two hours and a quarter, nothing much happens. Then the curtain falls.

This puts Ades’s work in the same current genre as Saariaho’s L’amour de loin, Birtwistle’s Last Supper, Benjamin’s Written on Skin and other masterpieces of the post-modern age.

Characters are put on stage, enveloped in an exquisite case of orchestral music. Two hours later, they are still there. The characters have not developed. Our emotions have not been aroused. No nails have been bitten. We don’t care who lives and who dies. Some social or philosophical comment is being made at the expense of the bourgeoisie and then we all applaud and go home, none the wiser nor the better for it.

The score that Ades has written for this opera is by far the richest thing he has done, with a huge swell of Straussian decadence in the third act and some overt debts to Messiaen. But the innate decadence of the plot defeats creative musical development and you sense the composer is running out of steam when he relies on an underpinning of ondes martenot and a percussionist with a playground whistle.

It was not painful to watch, nor taxing on the ears or brain. It was just static. Like Beckett with orchestra.

But Beckett made his point sixty years ago and theatre has moved on since then.

Main-stage opera is stuck in a rut.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Adams, Muhly, Mazzoli, Srnka and more have found ways to engage the emotions and the intellect without compromising originality or integrity.

The thing about an inert opera like The Exasperating Angel is that it’s going nowhere.


  • boringfileclerk says:

    I’m sorry, but there is too much going on in post-modern opera. To be truly forward thinking, they should stage an opera where the orchestra plays nothing, and the singers stand in place remaining silent – for eight straight hours.

    • John Borstlap says:

      …. and the audience staying at home. That would be a Cagean production and easy to budget.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      … and you should be obliged to attend the whole performance (and the restrooms would be locked, of course).

  • John Borstlap says:

    The music in this video demonstrates an attempt at early-Straussian or Bergian opera with modernist chunks thrown-in, but without the musical continuity which makes also static plots (like ‘Parsifal’) compelling. So, probably also the music is postmodern in the static sense. In Schoenberg’s Erwartung also almost nothing happens but the psychological turmoil of the lonely lady projects an engaging narrative of horror and angst. Feldman’s ‘Neither’ (without any plot whatsoever), notorious for its non-operatic non-projection, is neither about narrative nor about continuity, hence the title, and the thing is the dead-end street of all operatic stagnation. It seems to have had quite some influence though. If Ades would have the guts to throw-off (post-)modernism and other stale conventions of contemporary opera and to try to learn from Elektra, Salome or Wozzeck, he could maybe come-up with something truly operatic. Even some post-Puccini would do.

    • timbits says:

      Please give us some further analysis of this two minute video clip

      • John Borstlap says:

        At 1:01 there is a cadence V – I, both in the form of a dominant 7th chord and entirely parallel; at 2:03 a major triad has been thrown-in, but in the form of a 4/6 chord. Both diatonal very short moments are quickly left to continue the quicksand of chromatic meandering. I hope this is helpful?

  • BoredPeruser says:

    Baroque opera was pretty inert — no real nail-biters. The main problem with Ades’ opera is its lame social commentary and reliance on musical gimmicks and quotations. The characters seemed silly, the situations not in the slightest bit disturbing — usually absurd without the merit of being funny. And the shrieking badly-enunciated sopranos, typical of Ades, are simply maddening.

    Adams’ operas may not be narratively inert, but the music chugs along a railway line to nowhere.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Let us not forget that writing a BAD opera is already an enormous achievement, let alone writing a GOOD opera. Over the ages, a whole armada of attempts have sailed-out into the open, of which 99 of the 100 wrecked on rocky coasts. So, audiences have reason to be happy with the current Meyerbeers of contemporary opera: Adams, Ades and Glass.

  • pooroperaman says:

    ‘Our emotions have not been aroused.’

    Speak for yourself, mate.

  • Bill Florescu says:

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of very good new opera that is not inert that doesn’t happen in the “cultural centers” of the world, and therefore doesn’t get the ink that the pieces referenced do. It is sadly a post modern dose of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

  • Ronny says:

    I have not seen it, radio 3 gave it an interesting promo. Could it be that the typically bourgeoisie cannot critique the bourgeoisie?

  • Nick says:

    Respectfully disagree.

    One of the finest operas I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen most of the canon.

    At times it was masterful. The set was fantastic, singing and orchestration ethereal.

    A thoroughly memorable evening.

  • Andrew Rudiin says:

    Doesn’t it bother anyone that none of the words are intelligible? At least not in the clip shown.