In Review > North America

Powder Her Face

New York City Opera

In Review Powder her Face lg 513
Cook as Adès's Duchess in Scheib's NYCO staging
© Carol Rosegg 2013

The curtain was a huge video screen. At the outset, it displayed all manner of hectic, illegible activity. Soon it rose to the mid-knee, letting us glimpse the lower legs of the people onstage. A maid and a nurse bustled about the room, while two men in coveralls wrestled, stripped each other and started making out — only briefly, since one of them, the opera's Electrician (William Ferguson), needed to get into full drag before the overture's three minutes were up and the curtain rose. The videographer (Chelsey Blackmon) was herself onstage, contributing to the traffic jam. Her projections continued through much of what followed, often redundantly showing matters we could plainly see before us, but sometimes ducking "offstage" to chronicle the doings in a dressing room, where the characters would retire to snort coke. 

At some point, it might have occurred to alert audience members that a performance of Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face was taking place. But they well could have been forgiven for missing the point. Jay Scheib's production for New York City Opera, unveiled at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 15, not only rendered the opera's plot incomprehensible; it created so much distraction — so much aesthetic "noise" — that it made the piece difficult to hear.  

The 1995 opera is a fantasia on the life of the Duchess of Argyll, a famous society beauty plagued by sexual scandal and, eventually, madness. It is a work by turns droll, sardonic, caustic and finally — as the geriatric Duchess moves toward her doom — eerily moving. I should add that this is how I've perceived it on the EMI world-premiere recording, conducted by the composer, and in a 1998 Brooklyn Philharmonic performance. But Scheib apparently heard none of the strange beauty of Adès's score. His hyperactive production muddied the complex flavor of the music and turned Powder Her Face into a dull, silly piece. 

The element of the work that seemed most to engage Scheib's attention was its sexual explicitness. He offered a wearying parade of grapplings and humpings, few of them demanded by Philip Hensher's libretto. No mistake: Powder Her Face is racy stuff. In its most notorious moment, the Duchess sings a wordless aria while servicing a waiter. But here Scheib had already brought on a couple of dozen naked men, representing the protagonist's myriad sexual partners and making the sex act itself seem like an afterthought. As if a single act of fellatio weren't enough for one opera, Scheib added another, with its recipient the hypocritical Judge, delivering a jeremiad against the Duchess's sexual practices. But the most misguided bit of sex business came at the end, when the sepulchral, death-delivering Hotel Manager fell on top of the geriatric Duchess for a furtive, abortive roll in the hay — and, in doing so, interrupted the inexorable momentum of the opera's closing moments. 

In the circumstances, the performers were hard-pressed to do interesting work. The one who fared best was Matt Boehler (Duke/Judge/Hotel Manager), perhaps because his firm, resonant bass was the voice that carried best through the acoustically intransigent Howard Gilman Opera House. The singing of Nili Riemer, as the Maid, was fleet, but her voice was glaring — probably unavoidable in a role that, like Ariel in Adès's Tempest, cleaves to the top of the soprano range. The score's show-tune pastiches fall to the character of the Electrician; William Ferguson delivered these idiomatically, but elsewhere his light tenor tended to disappear in its lower reaches. 

Allison Cook inarguably had the right look for the Duchess. Angular and striking, she was very much the society beauty of a past era — a cross between Wallis Simpson and Joan Crawford. But her voice was hard and cold, her treatment of the music inexpressive: her singing never told us why we were hearing these particular notes in this particular order. 

Jonathan Stockhammer made the chamber-scaled orchestra sound like spiffiest of pit bands. But the musicians' good work was to little avail. The director drowned them out. spacer 


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