BWW Reviews: City Opera's Production of POWDER HER FACE by Thomas Ades Is Raining Men and a Dirty Duchess


She is a beast to an exceptional degree
She is a Don Juan among women
She is insatiable, unnatural and altogether fairly appalling

Hotel Manager as Judge
POWDER HER FACE, Act II, Scene 6: 1955

And those are the good things that the judge has to say about Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, who is the subject of Thomas Adès's POWDER HER FACE, which opened New York City Opera's 2013 season on Friday, February 15 at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music (BAM).

It also fairly sums up the problem with the piece, which has a witty libretto by Philip Hensher. "The Dirty Duchess," as she was called in the British tabloids, is a pretty uninteresting character outside of her sexual appetites. Is she worthy of our time or bother, because of who she is? Does she stop being of interest when the Duke divorces her? The British seem to have an endless appetite for the exploits of the upper class but, Princess Diana and "Downton Abbey" notwithstanding, who cares on this side of the pond?

But it's not just the aristos who take a beating in POWDER HER FACE. The story is filled with misogyny, homophobia and classism of all sorts. It shows the Duchess's disregard for "the little people"--but they return the favor, in spades. When she tells a journalist that she won't talk about certain things (those stories that make her the least bit interesting) the reporter already knows that she will write the whitewashed "official" version of the Duchess's bio, because her ladyship knows the right people. Even the judge in the Argylls' divorce proceedings feels no compunction about having a quickie with a young man under the table in front of him, while simultaneously handing down a withering indictment of the Duchess's peccadillos.

If this girl just wanted to have fun, we might just buy it-except she doesn't seem to get much fun out of her exploits or her money. But maybe that's the point. It reminded me of Madeline Kahn's Dietrich impersonation in "Blazing Saddles": "I'm bored," she sang. Even in the scene where the Duchess performs fellatio on a nameless man (or, the "headless" man, as he was known in Britain)--which made waves early on as the first time this particular act made it to opera stage--neither the Duchess nor her lover seems to be enjoying the experience.

Adès is the "it" boy of the moment for New York's opera companies, though they are both a bit late to the game. POWDER had its premiere in 1995 (when the composer was just 24) while THE TEMPEST, which had its local premiere at the Met earlier this season, debuted at Covent Garden in 2004.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.