When whiling away the time in sheet music shops, as I used to do very regularly before they all basically disappeared, I would always head straight for the ‘A’ section: John Adams was my hero growing up, pretty much the inspiration behind my own burgeoning compositional ambitions; it was hard to ignore the precocious brilliance of Thomas Adès’ early scores (or, for that matter, those of my future teacher Julian Anderson); I also had (and still have) a soft spot for Malcolm Arnold (alongside a number of other unfashionable British symphonists). Hans Abrahamsen’s scores then started to appear, trumping the others for alphabetical superiority. I should have been delighted by Michael van der Aa’s arrival on the scene but, well, I’ve yet to understand what all the fuss is about.
Within the space of a week, I have found myself attending operas by Adams and Adès in London, with the composer conducting in both instances. First up was Doctor Atomic at the Barbican with the BBCSO and the BBC Singers (including your correspondent, nestled among the tenors). The occasion formed part of the BBC’s celebrations in honour of JA’s 70th birthday, but it was also a timely performance of a work that probes the moral quandary of the figures behind the Manhattan Project. It is very much of a piece with Adams’ earlier operas, in that it deals with an event in America’s recent history in a largely reflective manner, being concerned less with action than exploring the psyche and motivations of individual characters.
When so many new operas are afflicted by what I might call ‘generic modernist arioso’, it is refreshing to find a composer affording his characters the odd set piece, a proper old-fashioned ‘number’, in which to articulate their thoughts on a higher poetic plane. The most notable such moment provides the Act 1 climax, a setting of John Donne’s Batter My Heart* for Gerard Finley’s Oppenheimer (the role he originated in 2005), who pleads forgiveness for the terrible forces he has loosed, periodically buffeted by clamorous brass and percussion. The sense of urgency from conductor and orchestra, and the performance of a baritone at the absolute top of his game, created an atmosphere and subsequent ovation in the hall that will live long in the memory.
What makes Adams such a natural fit for opera is his directness of expression; there may be a huge orchestra assembled on stage, but the orchestration is always deft, allowing lines both instrumental and vocal to be heard clearly. There’s also a refreshing lack of archness, another contemporary opera bugbear of mine; it’s music of conviction and sincerity, and it gives rise to moments of real emotional heft. If there is the odd longueur in the libretto, assembled from a collage of sources by Peter Sellars, it doesn’t detract too much from a compelling work.
Meanwhile, Adès’ The Exterminating Angel, receiving its first UK run at the Royal Opera House, revels in obfuscation. That might seem fair enough, given that it is based on a surrealist film by Buñuel that seeks to portray an oppressive nightmare in which nothing really makes sense. But it doesn’t half make for a frustrating night of theatre. A jaw-dropping cast is assembled on stage, and are made to do little more than caterwaul and fling inanities at each other, at least for the first act. Coloratura soprano Audrey Luna regrets ever advertising herself as such and only ever sings in altissimo. John Tomlinson harrumphs, Iestyn Davies ululates, Amanda Echalaz warbles. And they all do so brilliantly, I might add. But assembling so many world-class singers just to have them yell at each other seems perverse.
Things get somewhat more interesting after the interval. An interlude for solo guitar (the first time Adès has used the instrument) gives some respite from the churning orchestral passagework – replete with idiomatic, Iberian-tinged sounds, it is classily dispatched by Michael Kudirka. The chorus are given some undistinguished hubbub-ing to do, which at least gets us out of the infernal drawing room for a bit. Sophie Bevan and Ed Lyon perform a tender duet as doomed lovers. This moment aside, a tone of sarcastic irony is the order of business, à la Powder Her Face. But while that youthful work traded in biting wit and a certain louche elegance, here the humour is less sure-footed. The composer’s name makes it into the libretto – cue audience titter. A character is slapped in the face – cue percussion crash. In-jokes and knowing winks abound, most notably a wrong-note version of Sheep May Safely Graze that is flogged to death. A predictable dollop of musical pastiche is offered up, giving some credence to the fears of a composer friend who, in seeking to ascertain whether he should fork out for a ticket, wanted confirmation that it wouldn’t be just ‘a symphony of smug allusions to better music justified by a shrug and saying “it’s surrealism”‘.
Don’t get me wrong: I think Adès is a genius. Several years ago I wrote an essay on the man for Arêté magazine in which I say as much. And I’m sure this latest piece is terribly clever, under the bonnet, but I found it all rather irritating (it probably didn’t help that my ‘restricted view’ ticket allowed me to see a mere sliver of the stage).
* fun fact, provided by Alex Ross in his pre-concert lecture: Britten composed his own setting of this poem (as part of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne) on the very same day as the Trinity bomb test, July 16th 1945.