NEW YORK, Nov 15, (Agencies): Yes, that really is a stratospheric A above high C that Audrey Luna sings the first time we hear her in “The Exterminating Angel.”
The American coloratura soprano, one of many stars in the cast of Thomas Ades’ new opera, recalled her reaction when the composer first broke the news of her daunting assignment.
“He shows me the score, and I say, ‘Does it really have to be the very first thing I sing?’” Luna said. “And he goes, ‘Oh, it’s just a laugh, you can do it!’”
Do it she does, along with many other notes nearly as dizzyingly high. (For comparison’s sake, the highest note for the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” is an F, two tones below A.) Luna’s performance can be seen and heard when the Metropolitan Opera’s production is broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide on Saturday.
Luna is making a tiny bit of history with her A. According to The New York Times, it’s the first time in the Met’s 134 years that anyone has sung a note that high.
Her character in the opera, adapted from Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic 1962 film of the same name, is opera singer Leticia, a guest at a dinner party given by a wealthy couple who invites her back after a performance. Ades wrote the role with Luna in mind after hearing her perform the role of Ariel in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the Met in 2012.
Leticia and the other guests spend most of the opera’s three acts mysteriously trapped in the drawing room until she comes up with a plan for breaking the spell. She realizes all the guests have moved to the same spots they occupied in the first act when they asked her to sing and she refused.
This time she agrees, launching into a mystical, dreamlike aria that, in the libretto by Tom Cairns, includes lines like: “We, your scattered sheep, prisoners of desire/ From the four ends of the earth/ Our dreaming spirits yearn.” Once she’s done, the guests are able to leave the drawing room.
“The aria is crazy!” she said with a laugh. “There are no rests, no breath marks indicated. There are just periods at the ends of sentences. So when I got it I was like, ‘Help! I can’t do this.’” Ades assured her she could take a breath whenever she needed to.
Luna has her own theory as to why Leticia turns out to be the key to the guests’ escape. “I walk into this party as almost the help,” she said. “They have just seen me in a show. And now I’m there, like every opera singer, who maybe goes to a party afterward, you’re still on, still giving a performance in a way, and I feel like I’m almost on the same level as those servants. And so perhaps that’s why I see things coming. I’m not really one of the elites.”
Luna sang in the world premiere of the opera in Salzburg, Austria, in 2016 and again in London earlier this year. Nine of the 14 principals have been with the show since the beginning, and Luna said they spent so much time in rehearsal rooms that it sometimes felt as if they were living the story of the opera.
“We were together six days a week for six weeks in Salzburg, six weeks in London, about four or five here, in a room, for six hours a day,” she said. “The director’s off with a couple of people working out some staging, and we’re all sitting around, and sometimes you wonder, wait a minute, am I in rehearsal or am I in the movie, because you’re waiting until it’s your turn. … We were trapped, 100 percent.”
Before the opera opens, audiences may be surprised to see three sheep wander onstage. These are not the first sheep to appear at the Met — a previous production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” used them as well.
Many different animals have figured in Met productions over the years: a horse and donkey in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” dogs in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” and a goat and chickens in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace.” There was a camel in Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and a flock of geese in Humperdinck’s “Koenigskinder.”
“The Exterminating Angel,” also starring sopranos Amanda Echalaz and Sally Matthews, mezzos Alice Coote and Christine Rice, tenor Joseph Kaiser, countertenor Iestyn Davies and bass John Tomlinson, will be shown starting at 12:55 pm Eastern on Saturday with the composer conducting. A list of theaters can be found at the Met’s website: www.metopera.org/hd. In the US it will be repeated on Wednesday, Nov 29, at 1 pm and 6:30 pm local time.
The medium is the message — or so they say. If Paddy Chayefsky’s classic TV news satire isn’t just prescient, but positively prophetic in our age of fake news, the point is pressed home by an intricate multimedia staging that makes it almost impossible to tell fact from fiction.
Majestically played by “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston, anchorman Howard Beale carves up the day’s news with increasing apoplexy in a bid for record ratings, and it’s impossible not to see our own era of rolling fury reflected. After an impromptu on-air outburst bumps his failing nightly news show ahead of its rivals, the network’s bosses push him to keep ranting on repeat. That makes Beale a lightning rod for a nation’s rage, inciting viewers to declare themselves “mad as hell” en masse, and he cuts through a corrosive and corrupted system simply by calling attention to its corruption — Trumpian tactics, as plain as day. It’s uncanny, a warning fresh from 1976, but it’s so on-the-money it can seem on-the-nose.
But Beale’s furious displays are, ultimately, unsustainable — repeated rage eventually wears itself out. Cranston artfully suggests Beale as a latter-day, middle-aged Hamlet, staring at his reflection in a dressing room mirror, caught between a genuine onscreen meltdown and a performance of madness. Chayefsky’s script, nipped and tucked for the stage by the playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), picks that idea up in a subplot, as two television executives, Michelle Dockery’s glossily ambitious producer and Douglas Henshall’s honest old newshound, start an illicit affair that grinds down into cliche. Self-awareness, eventually, creeps into everything. All spontaneity slips into scripted reality.
That’s smartly exacerbated by van Hove’s layered production on Jan Versweyveld’s vast TV studio set. As news slides toward entertainment and Beale slips into contrivance, it gets harder and harder to tell fact from fiction. The same’s true of a staging that splits itself into multiple realities and swerves between them at speed. Live film does battle with direct address and real diners eat onstage as the actors act. Chefs cook up beef stews, waitresses glide by, and technicians call the show’s shots. Who’s acting, who’s not, and what’s the difference, either way? The whole production dances itself into distraction: as much a work of performance as a performance of work.
As Beale, Cranston glides through it all effortlessly, whether staring down the lens of a studio camera or leaping into the stalls. He, alone, knows where he stands in the scheme of things; a master of media manipulation who seems as sincere up on screen as he does sermonising out front. His presence is such that, both in mental free fall and sanguine clarity, we can’t take our eyes of him. He’s matched, move for move, by Tunji Kasim’s network head, who strides in with a real furious presence only to edge into some trope; sometimes comic book villainy, sometimes sports movie fervor.
Knowingly or not, however, van Hove himself seems stuck on repeat, reusing trickery he’s deployed before — and with diminishing returns. “Network” can feel like the storyboard of a show, one still lacking life. It’s deliberate of course, and as Hall’s script flags up the fakeries of the original film, its contrived romance, it slips further and further into a stilted, self-aware soap. Dockery, in particular, comes to feel two-dimensional and the further “Network” retreats from reality, the more we get a handle on the games being played, the more it risks leaving us bored as hell.