Thomas Adès Takes a Step Toward the Classical Music Canon

Pity living composers, toiling away in a field that has long favored dead ones. If they get a precious commission, the cycle tends to go something like this: The work premieres, and then travels to any other ensemble or company that helped to pay for it. After that, who knows. The fate of contemporary music typically comes down to marketability — hits still exist! — and to that strange, slippery thing called legacy.

One recent work that is worthy of the canon yet seemed doomed to obscurity is Thomas Adès’s opera “The Exterminating Angel.” It had a prestigious start, premiering at the Salzburg Festival in 2016, then playing at the Metropolitan Opera the next year. But it was immense: written on a grand scale, with more than a dozen principal roles, a chorus and an orchestra equipped with idiosyncratic sounds like that of the spooky, electronic ondes Martenot.

In his book, “The Impossible Art,” the composer Matthew Aucoin recalled hearing an opera administrator say that putting on “The Exterminating Angel” was “like watching money burn.” Regardless of its merits, there didn’t seem to be much hope for this work’s future.

How extraordinary, then, that “The Exterminating Angel” has not only been revived, but has also received something even rarer in opera: a new production, by Calixto Bieito, at the Paris Opera. (It continues through March 23 and is streaming on the company’s platform until Saturday.) And, revised by Adès, with the composer in the pit, it sounds better than ever.

“The Exterminating Angel,” with a libretto by Adès and Tom Cairns adapted from Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film, is one of the finest operas of the century so far, alongside works by George Benjamin and Kaija Saariaho. It represents opera at its most fundamental, an elevated expression of humanity on the edge. There is sex, violence and desperation. While the meaning can’t easily be explained, crucially for opera, the plot can be described in a single sentence: People enter a room, then lose the will to leave it.

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