BWW Reviews: POWDER HER FACE Stuns At Opera Philadelphia

Was it really as far back as 1995 that Thomas Ades premiered POWDER HER FACE, and that Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, was sung at Cheltenham by Jill Gomez? It hardly seems so; his music and Philip Hensher's English libretto seem fresh enough to have been written just yesterday. The subject matter is as timely as ever; were Margaret Campbell's divorce occurring nowadays, Perez Hilton would be blogging it daily; even now, in the days when nothing surprises us if the name Kardashian is attached to it, the antics of "the dirty duchess" can still cause a raised eyebrow even to the jaded. Were she alive now, the infamous "headless man" photograph would simply have progressed to a sex tape.

Opera Philadelphia has put her life back on stage for us at the Perelman Theatre at KimMel Center, in a chamber opera production as gorgeously staged and costumed as it is sung. Though it is slight - under two and a half hours - and though its subject matter not grandiose, leading one to wonder if it should not perhaps have been a piece of musical theatre rather than opera, it is jewel-like in its colors of clothing, of set, and of sound. Not the least of that is attributable to the presence of soprano Patricia Schuman, who stepped in to sing Margaret at what is, in terms of opera, the very last minute. No stranger to the Philadelphia musical scene, Schuman takes over the stage from the moment she steps upon it, and relinquishes it only in those scenes for which she is not present.

Although the sexual antics may recall any of the Kardashians or a dozen other celebutantes of the current day, the plot is much closer to that of "Sunset Boulevard" and Margaret's late decline much that of Norma Desmond's. Even when she is being evicted from the hotel suite in which she's lived for unpaid bills, she rushes to the mirror to fix her makeup, ready for that close-up.

Although it is Schuman who maintains Margaret's presence at all times, there is an ensemble working with her, three other performers who play all other roles, from the Duke to the Duchess' hotel maid to the priest performing her wedding. Ashley Emerson, in her Opera Philadelphia debut, plays a maid, a society reporter, and the Duke's mistress with equal aplomb and equal flourish; she is a fine singer herself and one may hope to see her back on the Philadelphia stage. Christopher Tiesi as the electrician, the priest, several other parts, and the somewhat infamous waiter acquits himself admirably, while bass Ben Wager gives a particularly fine performance as the Duke, as the hotel manager, and as the judge at Margaret's divorce proceedings in a particularly comic turn. These three singers provide the background for Margaret to shine, as well as to shock the audience out of complacency at her situation - hotel staff who mock her, a husband who grumbles over her possible infidelity... to his mistress.

The orchestra of 17 is, like the cast, small by opera standards but adds, thanks to Ades' novel scoring, instrumentation not normally seen, involving everything from the uncommon but not implausible accordion to the fishing reel as accompaniment to the glorious vocals of the performance.

There is humor here, in the orchestration and in the music itself, in the lyrics, and even in the design of the set, even though the story is as tragic as any. If anything, the moments of humor only serve to accentuate the tragedy of Margaret Campbell's life.

The production is well worth watching, and experiencing. Less shocking, and less sexual, than rumor has it, POWDER HER FACE is a reminder that even in modern times, the stuff of great dramatic tragedy still exists, and that a great composer can bring it out and illustrate it through his work. It is well worth seeing, and well worth adding to the regular modern operatic repertoire.

At the Perelman through June 16. Call 215-790-5800 or visit for tickets.

Photo Credit: Opera Philadelphia

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From This Author Marakay Rogers

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