New York City Opera
February 17, 2013
Powder her Face
Thomas Adès, composer
Philip Hensher, librettist
Conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer
Directed by Jay Scheib
Sets by Marsha Ginsberg
Costumes by Alba Clemente
Lighting by Thomas Dunn
Projections by Josh Higgason
Duchess – Allison Cook
Maid – Nili Riemer
Electrician – William Ferguson
Hotel Manager – Matt Boehler
Waiter – Jon Morris
Nurse – Kaneza Schaal
Thomas Adès’ Powder her Face is now almost twenty years old, and the composer, now 42, has only strengthened his spell on audiences, organizers, and musicians. We have grown accustomed to trusting Mr. Adès to deliver works that are not only cleverly and soundly constructed, but also emotionally absorbing and rewarding in a way representative of the better trends in music today—strong formal elements with emotionally absorbing atmosphere and mood. My neighbor at BAM warned me that this would not be The Tempest and that I should not expect to find maturity in the opera. Adès was in fact 24 when Powder her Face received its premiere at the Cheltenham Festival. As I looked and listened, the opera seemed a model of precocious maturity in comparison with the Pythonesque production it received from Jay Scheib, who is in fact Adès’ senior by two years. The opera is terrific, snarky fun, and no one could deny the brilliance of Scheib’s treatment, especially in his use of video, splendidly executed by Josh Higgason, to spread out telling details on a large scale and to expose partially hidden spaces to the audience—above all, the bathroom of the protagonist’s suite at the Grosvenor House, an important room for people of her self-indulgent proclivities. There the Dutchess and the associates interpolated by Scheib consume champagne, cannabis, cocaine, and semen in impressive quantities, all in convenient proximity to running water. The video camera and Mr. Scheib’s imagination ensure that these diversions continue more or less non-stop, which is not written into the libretto. One may well wonder whether these liberties help the opera to make its point, or whether they merely distract and annoy.
Of course these added details make a moral point. One could even say a “moralistic point,” that sex and intoxication pursued without human feeling or joy have nowhere to go other than quantity, or endless repetition. The opera, as originally presented, made its points rather less graphically. 1995 may actually be in effect longer ago than it might seem. I tend to think of Powder her Face in the context of its period, a golden age of tabloid journalism, as Princess Diana gave readers a run for their money in the period before and after her divorce from the Prince of Wales. At that time it was tempting to look back to the great sex scandals of the early 1960s, the Profumo Affair and the divorce of Margaret, Dutchess of Argyll from her husband, the 11th Duke, as watershed events in the development of tabloid reporting. The details of the Duke’s suit involved the accusation that the Dutchess had had sex with eighty-eight different men, including two cabinet ministers and two members of the royal family, and shocking Polaroid photographs of her naked, except for her trademark triple strand of pearls, performing oral sex on a man or men whose heads were not shown. The evidence was all the more appalling in that it was alleged that the gentlemen in question were the actor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Duncan Sandys, Minister of Defence, and a son-in-law of Winston Churchill. The judge, Lord Wheatley’s opinion summed-up the attitudes of the time:
“She is a highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities and has started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite. A completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied by a number of men, whose promiscuity had extended to perversion and whose attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call enlightened, but which in plain language was wholly immoral.”
The Duke filed his suit in 1959 and it came to court in 1962, concluding the following year, framing, rather interestingly, the period when Michael Powell’s controversial film, Peeping Tom, destroyed the director’s career. It was said that brain injuries from a forty-foot fall down an elevator shaft exacerbated Margaret’s nymphomaniacal tendencies. In history and as an operatic character she seems to have had few redeeming qualities, either intellectual, humane, or even sexual, to touch on the salient thread of her life. The great Bad Women of opera all display qualities that have excited audiences’ admiration, amazement, or pity since their premieres, even though one might not have discussed them openly before our own, open-minded times. Above all, the seductive powers of Carmen and Lulu, as dangerous or destructive as they may be towards the men they encounter, in their magnitude as the primum mobile of their characters and the action, seduce the audience as well, and excites tragic pity in them, since these powers of attraction prove lethal to the women themselves. Although Margaret was recognized as a great beauty even later in life, she never accessed feminine glamor beyond the ordinary: she simply paid for the services of hotel staff and gigolos from her inherited fortune, which also bought her a ducal husband. Not to mention the many lovers casually picked in the lofty social circles in which she moved. Hensher and Adès were well aware of that fact and showed a keen sense of proportion in using it to spice the irony of their tale. The Dutchess’ pitiable—but certainly not tragic—moment comes when she simply runs out of money and is evicted from her hotel room at the Grosvenor House. It is always painful to behold an eviction.
Allison Cook, the impressive British soprano who sings the part, is stylishly dressed (most often in lingerie), coiffed, and made up to show the Dutchess in her prime—or perhaps slightly beyond it—but in a way convincing in her declining years, undercuts the sympathy her final situation might evoke with a peevish air of entitlement. The Dutchess, as Philip Hensher wrote the part and as Cook so pointedly sings it, is something of a monster, but not especially beyond the confines of real life experience. We all sooner or later meet someone like that, whether their vices lean towards, sex, jewellery, art, or work. Cook’s voice is large, but impeccably focused and controlled, and her particular incarnation of her character’s larger-than-life qualities struck a telling balance between convincing psychology and operatic hyperbole. She had a thorough grasp of the elusive quality that holds our interest in the character, who is conceived not only as an anti-heroine, but as an “anti-creature” in every way, an “anti-she-devil,” if you like. Hensher, Adès, and Ms. Cook deserve accolades for developing and maintaining interest in a person so thoroughly lacking in charm, intelligence, and imagination. The Dutchess’ grounding lies unfortunately in the ordinariness fostered by indulgence and privilege. The power of the character lies in the intensity of her appetites and despair, best appreciated in the scene leading up to the notorious fellatio aria. In it we can see and hear boredom and loneliness flowing together and resonating, gathering in intensity, as she reaches a paroxism of desire. In this Adès piles on the shapely but expressionistic melodic phrases which seduce the ear even when the music and the level of human consciousness it depicts is ugly.
These important aspects of the opera come through in spite of the general hyperactivity of the production. The constant, almost rapid-fire, enactment of fellatio only distracts from the one naughtiest gesture of this opera, which has earned it its share of notoriety, the single occurrence of the act in the libretto, literally presented on stage and described in detail in the music. The main reason for the success of the production is the strength of the music and the libretto. Although I can’t think of one scene that isn’t more effective in a straight production, Scheib’s excesses at least reflect ideas that are inherent in what was written. There was some intelligence in Scheib’s multiplications and admirable skill in their execution. But fellatio spreads like some plague from outer space in a science fiction movie. Even Lord Wheatley is sucked off as he pronounces his decision on the Campbells’ divorce. I am torn. I can only give it a near-top rating as a theatrical tour de force, but quite a mixed, basically low one as a setting for the opera. Ultimately I felt rather bludgeoned by all the stage sex, and it somewhat blunted my ability to savor the effervescent concluding music, which reminded us that we have just witnessed a good old-fashioned sex farce.
The chamber orchestra played incisively and with style under Jonathan Stockhammer’s direction. Nili Riemer, who sang the Maid and her variant identities managed all the twists and turns of her exceedingly challenging roles with interpretative and vocal brilliance. Curiously, the production divided the tenor roles, originally intended to be sung by one singer, between William Ferguson and Jon Morris, both of whom were excellent. Matt Boehler looked, sang and acted the part of the Hotel Manager (also the Duke) pretty much to perfection. Kaneza Schaal acted an added silent part of the Nurse with vivid invention.
The singers and orchestra were close to flawless. Although the production did not serve the opera well, it proved the power of Jay Scheib’s abilities. One can still praise the New York City Opera’s daring and enterprise in supporting such an effort. I’d like to see his work on other more suitable material. Just don’t let anyone think it might be Fidelio.