Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a “play in which nothing happens, twice,” in Vivian Mercier’s bon mot. Less known to English-speaking audiences is another work in which nothing happens twice, namely Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel. The great Spanish auteur attacked the subject as surrealist social farce rather than as Existentialist absurdity, as with Beckett. Buñuel’s nihilism makes no pretense at portraying the human condition in general. It is as distinctively Spanish as Gilbert and Sullivan are distinctively British, which explains why Spanish theater troupes do not perform HMS Pinafore and American audiences largely ignored The Exterminating Angel. As a narrative of cultural suicide, though, it has no peer in postwar art.
Buñuel was a lifelong Communist and concluded his film with a revolutionary statement. But he brought to the screen a profoundly biblical sensibility, most of all in the matter of retribution. The film’s title may be a reference to the 19th-century Spanish Society of the Exterminating Angel, a death squad that hunted Spanish liberals. But it is more immediately a citation of I Chronicles 21:15, “And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it” after King David ordered a census in contravention of biblical law. The subject of the film is divine vengeance against a corrupt elite that is incapable of extricating itself from its torpor.
The British composer Thomas Adès, the son of Syrian-Jewish immigrants to the United Kingdom, debuted an operatic adaption of Buñuel’s Angel at the Salzburg Festival last year. The Metropolitan Opera features it prominently in its fall season. With a few telling exceptions, Adès and his librettist, Tom Cairns, stick close to Buñuel’s screenplay. Their endeavor raises a question: How do you write music about nothing? The question is not as silly as it sounds. Adès solves it by injecting extraneous material into the comedy, which supports the music but disturbs the joke.
Adès has no limitations as a composer, by which I mean that he has a sure grip on the whole battery of compositional styles and musical devices. He can do with a score whatever he thinks best, and his use of tonal devices, as well as atonal gestures and sound effects, is canny and deliberate. The question is whether he has provided Buñuel’s comedy with the music it requires. The film has no score at all; the only music is performed by one of the characters in the course of the action.
In the film, guests arrive for dinner at a Mexico City mansion (on “Providence Street”), and find that they cannot leave the living room. The servants have had a strange compulsion to flee. There is no explanation for their paralysis of will. They do not understand it themselves. Days go by, and the aristocratic company begins to stink and starve. They obtain water by breaking open a pipe in the wall and food by butchering a pet lamb. A crowd gathers outside but cannot enter, either. The entrapped guests descend by turns into madness and violence, until one of them observes that they have returned by random motion to the precise positions they occupied just before the spell descended on them. They repeat verbatim the party banter that preceded their imprisonment, and the survivors stumble out of their hell.
The host promises to sponsor a solemn mass if the group escapes, but the partygoers’ Christianity cracks and peels under stress. One lady in the party, who carries chicken feet in her purse, applies practical Kabbalah without success; it is not clear whether she is meant to be a covert Jew or just dotty. Chicken feet pertain to voodoo, not Kabbalah. A Freemason in the group shouts “Adonai!” a masonic call for help, but no one appears.
Repetition, it turns out, is not the counter-spell, but a nasty divine joke. Buñuel warns us that something is awry by repeating the entrance of the guests into the mansion. The master of the house offers a toast to the prima donna of the opera they have just heard. He starts to repeat the scene, but this time the partygoers ignore him, as Buñuel winks to the audience.
After stumbling out of the house, the partygoers appear shortly afterward for a Mass of thanks-giving, but this time no one is able to leave the church. The priests halt at the exit and the parishioners mill about unable to pass the threshold. In case we were unclear about what Buñuel had in mind, the last scene shows machine guns firing at an uprising outside the church, and a herd of sheep entering the church. The relevant repetition was not the reenactment of the banal events that preceded the guests’ entrapment, but rather the repetition of the entrapment itself, this time in the church. Nothing has happened twice. These are people who are doomed to repeat themselves. That is why they are trapped.
This may seem like an elongated episode of The Twilight Zone, but Rod Serling and Luis Buñuel are as far removed as Gary Larson and Francisco Goya. The subject is not the human condition in general but the condition of Spanish culture in particular. The film critic Roger Ebert argued that “the dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain,” but that seems too restrictive. Since its epic defeat by France during the 30 Years’ War of 1618–1648 and humiliation in the 1657 Treaty of the Pyrenees, Spain and its former colonies have persisted in a time-warp of nostalgia and resentment.
Spain is a land where nothing happens. It never quite entered the modern age with the rest of Europe. Three-quarters of Spaniards were illiterate as late as 1825. The death of Francisco Franco in 1975 concluded more than a century of intermittent violence and caciquismo, a pattern reproduced in Latin America. The past continues to haunt the modern Spanish Republic. The long-suffering Catalans, incorporated into the Spanish monarchy by force after the War of Spanish Succession and again after the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, are now making yet another historic bid for independence.
To a Hispanic audience, it is savagely funny when guests in a Mexican mansion find themselves unable to leave the drawing room, just as it is amusing for an English audience when the pirates’ apprentice in The Pirates of Penzance believes he must serve a group of murderous cutthroats because his indenture requires it of him. Entrapment in the past and an exaggerated sense of duty are, respectively, cultural tropes of Spain and England, and make for excellent comedy—but only for those who understand the tropes.
That is why nihilism suits Spanish comedy so well. In a recent interview, Adès said that we sympathize with all the characters in Angel because we ourselves might be in their situation. Buñuel hates them all and relishes their divinely-ordained humiliation and ruin. Many of his screenplays are populated exclusively by destructive characters, including his late comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; his 1961 dissection of the Spanish landed gentry, Viridiana; and his 1970 version of the Perez Galdos novel Tristana. Buñuel is a spiritual cousin of Goethe’s Mephistopheles, who thinks that everything that comes to be deserves its own destruction, and depicts ruin with devilish enjoyment.
The dramatis personae of Angel have nothing to say: They gossip, snipe, complain, and expostulate. They are onstage virtually all the time, though, and Adès has to give them something to do. Two quite different sorts of composition are involved. He sets the party banter in fragments that usually promise a tonal resolution but end up on a “wrong note.” The female lead, Leticia, punctuates the conversation with bursts of coloratura stretching to high C, squeaked and jibbered with aplomb by soprano Audrey Luna.
Echoes of Benjamin Britten, the patriarch of English opera, abound, but with choppier phrasing suited to the material. This is entirely appropriate for a conversation that drifts without purpose, but there is rather too much of it. Adès keeps so much of the original screenplay that he simply has too many words to set. One recalls Heidegger’s effort in the lecture What is Metaphysics to exemplify “non-being.” Think of boredom, Heidegger suggested, and the shoe sadly fits for long stretches of Adès’s opera.
In between the long stretches of conversation, Adès serves up interludes and arias, more conventional opera forms. The most important of these occurs between the first two scenes of Act I, just as the audience comes to understand that something dreadful is happening. Here I felt that Adès relied too much on raw emphasis and on the trap drum in particular. Creepily effective, by contrast, is the use of the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that adds an ominous horror-movie tone to moments when the company’s entrapment deepens.
Adès wants a statement of redemption, though, and at the critical moment in the comedy—just before the guests find a way to liberate themselves—interpolates a setting of the 13th-century Jewish poet Yehuda HaLevi. Ms. Luna sang it beautifully. It is adapted from the famous stanza:
Zion, do you ask if the captives are at peace—
the few that are left?
I cry out like the jackals when I think of their grief;
but, dreaming of the end of their captivity,
I am like a harp for your songs.
The last line is familiar from the chorus of the song “Jerusalem of Gold.” It is touching music, or rather music that would have been touching had it appeared in a different opera. HaLevi’s poem is one of Judaism’s most heartfelt pleas for redemption. But Buñuel’s partygoers do not want redemption. On the contrary, as their tribulation continues, they become not more contrite but more cruel, at length demanding the murder of their host just before a random turn of events releases them—for the moment. It is all a grotesque joke, and Adès missed the punchline. They really are going to die, as representatives of their caste and culture, because heaven has sent an angel to exterminate them.
The opera concludes with a crowd onstage apparently unable to pass through a large gate that earlier represented the door of the drawing-room in which the guests were trapped. It dispenses with the final scene in the church, which is the film’s punchline: Providence played cat-and-mouse with the trapped guests, allowing them to leave one trap only to catch them in another. The Jewish sages write of the Attribute of Mercy and the Attribute of Justice. Buñuel has no interest in mercy because he knows no characters who merit it, and his Exterminating Angel is the relentless instrument of justice. Adès leaves the ending ambiguous, whereas Buñuel slams the punchline with gusto.
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David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.