Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face: A Gleaming Performance by Odyssey Opera Orchestra

Nelida Nassar  06.25.2015

To complete its “British Invasion” festival, the young Odyssey Opera selected the remarkable 1994 – 1995 opera Powder Her Face by Thomas Adès, and their performance was enthralling. Considered a chamber opera, since it calls for only four singers and an orchestral ensemble of fifteen players, the work is the composer’s opus 14. Incidentally, Gil Rose conducted this same opera in Boston 12 years ago.

The Boston Conservatory Theatre was far from full the night we attended. Was that the result of Adès’s warning that the piece contained scandalous material, or was it simply a lack of curiosity on the part of the music-going public? In any case, those who missed it will surely regret it. For the record, “the actual bit of scabrous [action in] scene of Act I is only an epiphenomenon, a minor aspect of the which is justified dramatically and musically. Specifically, in a room in the Grosvenor Hotel two drunken employees, Amanda Hall and Daniel Norman, engage in some outright debauchery involving sex, drugs, and alcohol — the classic cocktail. Evoking degeneracy and disorderliness, the music reinforces the impression of decay. Playing a transvestite, Norman brilliantly mimes fellatio, the first such incident of the evening, but not the last! Still, it was overshadowed by the greatest revelation of all: the magnitude of Adès’ musical talent, which was well served by the orchestra’s brilliant rendition.

The plot is based on the real story which supplied so much grist to the English gossip mills, that of the scandalous manners and tumultuous divorce of the Duchess of Argyll. Patricia Shuman plays the Duchess at all the various stages of her life. In her twilight years, while singing of her past glory, she orders that her pearls, diamonds, and bottle of “Joy,” her favorite perfume be brought to her. She was young, pretty, well educated, and extremely rich. She was even referred to in Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top.” People would have forgiven Margaret Argyll her many escapades if she had not been a female who took Polaroid photographs of herself in the nude (selfies avant la lettre) while at the same time occupying a rank in the social hierarchy calling for a minimum of dignity.

But these facts are just a pretext for the opera’s vitriolic criticism of the conventions of aristocratic society, in England and elsewhere. Everyone gets his or her due from the wastrel Duke and his cynical, libidinous mistress, to the servants, the false friends, and the histrionic judge who accuses the Duchess of being “insatiable, unnatural, and altogether fairly appalling” — while issuing no rebuke to her philandering husband. The tabloids, too, come in for some hard knocks. In fact, it is an entire society with its   hypocrisy and subservience to appearances, money, and power that is put on trial. Whether middle class or aristocrat, whether a representative of the law or a member of the media, everyone in Powder Her Face is a voyeur. Even the theatre audience is invited to join in! This is one of the aspects that makes the opera so timely.

All the same, Philip Hensher’s libretto, which is too clever to leave us feeling merely censorious, exudes tenderness and compassion for the characters, who are victims, above all, of their own weaknesses. The audience is thus relieved of what could have been an excessive emotional burden. The opera is fierce, indeed, but it is never nasty. We often laugh heartily, feeling like accomplices, almost fraternal. Yes, the Duchess, the Duke and all the others are decadent, ridiculous, excessive, liars and corrupt – but they look so much like us! And in the end, morality is preserved, since the Duchess ends up paying her debts, literally as well as figuratively.

Ah, the Duchess! A magnificent character that Schuman plays with great panache. Throughout the eight “chapters,” and constructed like a movie with flashbacks or “flash-forwards,” the life of the “Dirty Duchess” unwinds on the stage accompanied by exquisite video projections of tabloid clippings from many decades showing, for example, her consecration as debutante of the year in 1934; her trial in 1959, where her Grace was displayed as an object of desire, and the court treated to endless images of her lovers – there were reportedly 88 of them; and her final fall in 1990 following her conviction.

The Duchess wallows in real or imaginary luxury that by itself justifies her existence: everyone can be bought, from a bellboy all the way up to a duke. The only problem is that an unwelcome person, the hotel manager (Ben Wager), always ends up presenting the bill. Schuman’s voice is sumptuous, even as she expertly adapts it to the score’s whims, which can sometimes be quite tricky to negotiate. In the second act, her wonderfully portrayed transformation from an elegant courtesan and sublime nymphomaniac to a wreck is very poignant. Finally she drops her defenses altogether, dissolved in the mists of abandonment and neglect in the shattering final scene. Standing by an open lit door, she is ushered into the next world, beautifully staged by Nic Muni, while the orchestra creates the eerie sound of fishing reels.

The other three singers each play multiple roles. Baritone Ben Wager is the Duke, the Hotel Manager, the Laundryman, the Other Guest and the Judge; tenor Daniel Norman is the Electrician, the Lounge Lizard, the Waiter, the Priest, the Rubbernecker, and the Delivery Boy; and soprano Amanda Hall is the Maid, the Confidante, the Waitress, the Duke’s Mistress, the Rubbernecker, and a Society Journalist (the renowned Gloria Steinem). Their singing is stellar in these very challenging roles, requiring great leaps and sudden changes of register, which sometimes make it difficult to understand their words given the unfortunate absence of super-titles.

Muni’s ingenious and agile design conjures staging tricks that both support the narrative and highlight the deeply satirical and scathing nature of the work. The Duchess’s grey room with its bed, writing tables and divan are transformed to become the courtroom and the judicial bench. The show has as much dynamism as humor, the scenes succeeding one another in a breathless sequence, without any dead time.

The score of Powder her Face is highly complex, confronting both singers and orchestra with numerous challenges from contrapuntal technique, to linear understanding of harmony all the way to the serial and 12-tone music and more. It is also dizzyingly inventive, amazingly so when one considers that it is the work of a 23 year old. One suspects it emerged out of a musical culture of encyclopedic dimensions. Obvious, and some not so obvious, winks abound — at times tender and at times ironic — to Ades’ illustrious predecessors: blue notes from the jazz world, the Second Vienna School (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and others), Berlin cabaret scenes, and Broadway, along with reminiscences of worldly tangos, parodies of crooners, and a few whiffs of Bernstein. The Duchess is a dark reflection of Strauss’s Marschallin for an age in which noblesse is no longer obliged, and when her black veil is removed at the trial, Adès borrows a few bars from the introduction of Baba the Turk’s in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Adès’ complete freedom in composing repays careful attention. The score is endlessly pirouetting, whether in captivating solo tirades (for the Duchess, but also for a judge more English any actual one could ever be), or in the duos and trios. The music is as sarcastic as the text, and while sometimes overwhelming it often turns poetic. There was considerably more to appreciate in this performance such as Amanda Mujica’s costumes that offer luxury with a hint of sardonic excess. Gil Rose gave a vibrant, exacting account of this complex, haunting work, notable in particular for maintaining an excellent balance between the singers and the orchestra’s very talented musicians. The staging features many clever transformations, the lighting is ingenious. God we had fun through all the pranks and puns!

Thomas Ades: Powder her face Opera in 8 acts
Philip Hensher: Libretto 

Production: Odyssey Opera Orchestra
Gil Rose: Conductor 

Nic Muni: Stage Designer and Scenic Designer
Amanda Mujica: Costume Designer
Rachel Padula Shufekt: Hair and Make-up Designer

Linda O’Brian: Lighting Designer
Patricia Schuman: The Duchess
Ben Wager: Duke, Hotel Manager, Laundryman, Other Guest, Judge
Daniel Norman: Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Priest, Rubbernecker,
Delivery Boy
Amanda Hall: Maid/Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker,
Society Journalist

Kathy Wittman: Photography

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