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.<

Still, even after all this time, the opera does have its impact and, while I can't say it makes for a thrilling listening experience, it's never dull. Adès does know how to use his music to delineate the characters, some sung by singers in multiple roles, or pull the fragmented story forward toward its inevitable conclusion, with the able contributions of librettist Hensher. They even know how to have some fun, as when the Duchess, surrounded by naked men, calls room service for a "beef sandwich." The orchestra under Jonathan Stockhammer did an admirable job of keeping the challenging music and singers in tow and director Jay Sheib quite remarkably blew up this chamber piece to billboard size, without losing its sense of intimacy.

On the down side, showing little empathy for the Duchess, the score amply reflects the disregard that she is shown, even by her sexual partners. Her music is forced into an ongoing fever pitch, frequently ugly and shrill, though mezzo Allison Cook pulls it off with aplomb. This is no small trick considering the demands placed upon her, which include singing in many positions during sexual encounters, in various stages of undress. Soprano Nili Riemer excels as the Maid and several other roles; her music's high tessitura might sound strident in less capable hands (though nothing is quite so ear-shattering as the music for Ariel in THE TEMPEST). The men have less showy roles, but baritone Matt Boehler and tenor William Ferguson contribute ably to their multiple roles.

During her heyday, the Duchess reputedly had 88 lovers. City Opera rounds this down to merely 25 nonsinging extras in the first act (money's tight at City, don'cha know), who emerge naked from everywhere--the bathroom, armoire and buried beneath the covers of the bed--and lounge or walk about the stage for an extended, memorable scene. The staging of the scene, which is more riotous than lewd, by director Scheib, is one of the highlights of the performance.

The vivid production designed by Marsha Ginsberg with costumes by Alba Clemente, lighting by Thomas Dunn and projection design by Joshua Higgason, has video cameras following the action and projecting live images on the scenery. It becomes a kind of reality TV that we view up-close and personal.

Watch for the series next year on Bravo?

Further performances of POWDER HER FACE at Brooklyn Academy of Music, February 21 and 23

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow has been's Opera Editor for more than four years, with interests covering contemporary works, standard repertoire and true rarities from every era. He is an interviewer of important musical figures on the current scene--from singers Diana Damrau, Peter Mattei and Angela Meade to Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts, librettist Mark Campbell and director Kevin Newbury.

Earlier in his career, he interviewed such great singers as Birgit Nilsson and Martina Arroyo and worked on the first US tour of the Vienna State Opera, with Karl Bohm, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein, and the inaugural US tour of the Orchestre National de France, with Bernstein and Lorin Maazel.

Sasanow is also a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others.