New opera production adds something new to Luis Buñuel’s ‘The Exterminating Angel’: cannibalism

Calixto Bieito added an element to “The Exterminating Angel” that Luis Buñuel and Thomas Adès left out: cannibalism.

Adès’ opera, based on Buñuel’s 1962 film “El ángel exterminador,” details psychologically blocked dinner guests who can’t depart a mansion and the disintegration of decorum after days of dystopian detachment. Bieito’s new production opened at the Paris Opéra on Feb. 29 and runs through March 23.

Buñuel featured sheep who wander the house, then are cooked and eaten. Bieito, a 62-year-old Spanish director known for provocative interpretations, sets despairing patricians bingeing on each other’s limbs.

“He just said ‘I hate sheep. We’re not having sheep. They are the sheep,’” Adès said. “I thought, oh, yes, OK. And then it very kind of quickly dawned on me: Oh, God, this means they’re going to be eating each other. I see where this is going. But it’s not gross or anything.”

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo mimics chomping into his right forearm.

“Mine’s a little tough. I prefer it à point,” he sings of a French term for “medium rare” as the aristocratic Francisco de Ávila, younger brother of the Duchess Silvia.

“Calixto himself is really steeped in Buñuel’s mindset and context and history,” Costanzo said. “It was clear to him that we didn’t want to replicate the film, but we wanted to make something that represented it and that represented that kind of thinking.”

This image released by Opéra Bastille - Opéra national de Paris shows a performance of "“The Exterminating Angel” in Paris on Feb. 26, 2024. (Agathe Poupeney/Opéra Bastille - Opéra national de Paris via AP)
This image released by Opéra Bastille – Opéra national de Paris shows a performance of ““The Exterminating Angel” in Paris on Feb. 26, 2024. (Agathe Poupeney/Opéra Bastille – Opéra national de Paris via AP)

Adès, a 54-year-old British composer, conducted the first four performances of the run. He compared the mood of his opera to “blue cheese — the subject matter is inherently fetid.”

“He’s released the beast in the music,” Adès said of Bieito. “Somehow it’s in the music but I’d never realized it. But when you see it on stage with the music, I’m afraid it is all too correct.”

Tenor Nicky Spence, who sings the role of dinner host Edmundo de Nobile, had been unfamiliar with Buñuel’s work.

“I was too busy watching rom-coms and fluff. I don’t really watch a lot of international films or surreal films because I do that for a living,” he said. “I think it poses a lot of big questions about what life is and what reality is, and the way that we metaphorically close ourselves into rooms on a daily basis.”

Bieito’s is just the second staging of Adès’ opera following the premiere production by Tom Cairns, who also wrote the libretto. Cairns’ vision, also modern but less striking, started in 2016 at the Salzburg Festival and went on the London’s Royal Opera, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Danish Theatre.

In Paris, characters clad in Ingo Krügler’s colorful evening attire arrive for dinner on Anna-Sofia Kirsch’s bare white set. Only a long table, red chairs and a piano are on stage.

During a march between the first and second acts, stark red lighting by Reinhard Traub silhouettes soprano Gloria Tronel (portraying opera singer Leticia Meynar) as she is carried around atop a table in a crucifixion pose.

“I was like: ‘Well, of course,’” Adès said. “It’s always been in it.”

Bieito represents sheep with balloons held by a boy. Simulated sex highlights depravity.

“He’s a force of nature,” said contralto Hilary Summers, who sings Leonora Palma, a dinner guest ailing with cancer. “Basically he gets us all to do the work for him — that’s his biggest skill, is that he just throws in a bone, and we all run at with like rampant hungry wolves.”

Stephen Sondheim’s version of the story premiered at The Shed in New York last fall titled “Here We Are,” the final musical of the great American composer who died in 2021 at age 91. Sondheim and book writer David Ives adapted “Exterminating Angel” as their show’s second half and based the first on “Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie),” a farcical tale of friends failing at finding a place to eat.

The March 9 performance of Bieito’s darker imagining was recorded on video and will be available for streaming on Medici starting March 22. The story gave food for thought.

“I will say that, Parisian dinners can extend a long time, as they can in New York,” Costanzo said. “The best story I ever heard of a dinner in New York was that someone had people over to his apartment and left to get something. And when he left, the door handle fell off, and the entire party was stuck in the room.”

Costanzo identified that host only as an arts patron.

Spence laughed at the opera’s comparison of art and life.

“People tend to get out alive at my dinner parties,” he said, “but I suppose I’ve been at some bad dinner parties where they feel like they’re going on interminably.”

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