‘The Exterminating Angel’ Brings Together Opera and the Movies

I think Buñuel understood and loved music as much as any other film director. But the movies from his fecund late period in France don’t have musical scores. There’s music in some of them — memorably, the flamenco that Ángela Molina dances to in “That Obscure Object of Desire” — but no scores. The music in those late films is mostly in their rhythms. In “Belle de Jour,” when the film wants to convey the disjointed consciousness and subconscious of its conflicted heroine, her memories and fantasies are cut with a syncopated abruptness.

WALLS This is one of the biggest hurdles for a composer trying to adapt Buñuel: defining in music something that originally had little of it. Mr. Adès responds to the challenge with a crazily varied score. His earlier works have exhibited some similar traits; his 1995 opera “Powder Her Face” is full of self-consciously outrageous winking.

But his sounds here are stranger and funnier. He emphasizes the situation’s surrealism with his choice of instruments, like the ondes Martenot and its ethereal, swooping tones. Miniature violins and a salad bowl are included.

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The Strange Instruments of the Met Opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Thomas Adès’s “The Exterminating Angel” features highly unusual instruments, from tiny violins to slamming doors.

By JEAN YVES CHAINON and TIM CHAFFEE on Publish Date October 24, 2017. Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times. Technology by Samsung.. Watch in Times Video »

The orchestra’s “regular” instruments also get in on the fun. There’s a lot of dissonance in some of the ensemble scenes — but also some abstracted waltz pulses that are amusing for the would-be-elegant way they wander in from nowhere. What did you make of the music?

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Sally Matthews in “The Exterminating Angel” at the Met. Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times

KENNY Even though there’s little music in the film, “The Exterminating Angel” is about people attending a dinner party after an opera — Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” — and the film is steeped in music appreciation. One of the guests, Blanca, entertains everyone on the piano, and there’s talk of pizzicato and sonatas. The most beautiful woman in the group, Leticia, is mockingly given the Wagnerian nickname “Valkyrie.”

It’s commendable that Mr. Adès doesn’t take these specific classical-music allusions as a cue for lazy pastiche. When Leticia’s nickname is first mentioned, a Wagnerian motif does not follow. That’s not to say that Mr. Adès isn’t referential. Like many of our best contemporary composers, he’s got an exhaustive command of musical idioms. I heard percussion like that of Calanda, the town where Buñuel was from; flamenco; Wagner by way of Bernard Herrmann.

WALLS During intermission, you reminded me that Buñuel used the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” twice, in “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age d’Or,” right at the start of his career.

KENNY The “Liebestod” was a piece of music Buñuel was drawn to almost as much as he was to the drums of Calanda. He also uses it in a rarity, his 1953 Mexican adaptation of “Wuthering Heights.” For him the “Liebestod” is the ultimate musical expression of amour fou, the surrealist ideal of wild romantic love, an overwhelming destructive force against bourgeois values.

WALLS It’s clear that he enjoyed music and that he also detested the snobbish attitudes that can ruin our experience of it. In “The Exterminating Angel,” the characters seem to become enmeshed in their fateful trap right after the pianist’s performance, when a conductor in the group harshly corrects another guest who uses the wrong terminology. It’s as if that casual elitist cruelty is spurring Buñuel on.

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Rod Gilfry, standing, in a scene from “The Exterminating Angel.” Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times

KENNY That’s an interesting read on it. Almost invariably, Buñuel’s films, when they depict the bourgeoisie, depict forces at work to confuse or punish it. This theme, and its particular pertinence today, may be why artists are lately drawn to “The Exterminating Angel.” There’s Mr. Adès and Stephen Sondheim, who’s at work on a musical that merges the story with “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” another film about an upper-class dinner party gone awry that Buñuel made 10 years later.

But I have never looked at the outlandish situations in terms of cause and effect. I always see Buñuel as a deadpan presenter of outsize existential quandaries with no rational explanation.

WALLS When I glanced over some of Buñuel’s writings, I found many references to music. In a short 1922 piece, “Orchestration,” he came up with character sketches for instruments. About the cello: “Murmurs of sea and woods. Serenity. Deep eyes. They have the conviction and grandeur of Jesus’s sermons in the desert.” Regarding the timpani: “Skins filled with olives.”

By the time he wrote his autobiography, “My Last Sigh,” he was suffering from deafness. Yet his musical memory was still crisp: He recalled trying to draft André Breton into opera fandom. It didn’t take since the production, of Charpentier’s “Louise,” was bad enough to drive everyone from the theater.

KENNY That last chapter of “My Last Sigh,” in which he describes his preparation for death, is sad and funny at once — and never more poignant than when he complains that his deafness has made it impossible for him to listen to music.

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