OPERA NEWS - Powder Her Face
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In Review > North America

Powder Her Face 

West Edge Opera

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West Edge Opera's production of Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face, featuring Laura Bohn's Duchess (center) with Emma McNairy and Jonathan Blalock
Photo by Cory Weaver
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Bohn's Duchess
Photo by Cory Weaver
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McNairy and Hadleigh Adams
Photo by Cory Weaver

THE FADED GLAMOUR of Oakland’s abandoned 16th Street Railroad Station provided the perfect setting for West Edge Opera’s production of Powder Her Face (seen July 31), Thomas Adès’s work about the fall of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Once the west coast terminus for transcontinental train travel, the empty shell of the once-glorious Beaux Arts building sits in a deserted area of West Oakland. Opera patrons gamely drive, Uber or walk from public transportation outlets, and rows of port-a-potties and food concessions flank concrete terraces. 

Like the Duchess, whose 1963 divorce trial was a tabloid sensation, Adès’s racy 1995 opera has been around the block a few times, but West Edge’s excellent, unbuttoned production brought an atmosphere of nostalgia and humanity that kept the raunchy humor of Philip Hensher’s libretto in perspective. Elkhanah Pulitzer’s direction contrasted the prurient voyeurism of the public, both onstage and in the audience itself, with the desolate self-observation of the Duchess, who cringes in the corner of the bedroom set as her life is parodied and judged by a vicious and cruel public.

Chad Owens’s simple hotel-room set offered smaller playing areas to each side, while Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting design ranged from appropriately garish green to delicate silver, particularly beautiful in one scene as the Duchess washes her hands in a slender shower of sand. 

West Edge Opera’s cast of four superb singing actors maintained vocal and dramatic control while portraying a variety of sexual acts including masturbation, threesomes, oral sex and voyeurism. In particular, Laura Bohn’s powerfully sung Duchess exuded sadness and vulnerability under her steely elegance, managing—even in the opera’s famous blow-job aria—to portray a wounded woman bewildered by fate. Bohn moved among the opera’s many time periods skillfully, changing wigs and demeanor in full view of the audience, as the fallen woman attempts desperately to give a dignified interview to a beauty magazine and ends up groveling for one more day, not merely at the hotel but for life itself.

Other cast members take multiple roles, with Hadleigh Adams particularly effective as the vapid Duke, the condescending hotel manager, and the hypocritical judge who condemns and sentences the Duchess even while being pleasured under his robes. Adams handled the rangy role, from sleazy low glides to forceful, ringing top notes, with perfect detachment and sneer.

Emma McNairy’s snippy maid, nosy journalist and gossipy onlooker highlighted her nimble, bright-edged soprano, laughing with cruel abandon in stratospheric high notes and projecting every word easily. Adès’s vocal writing is notoriously difficult, but except for some compromised vowels on high notes, tenor Jonathan Blalock brought verve and agility to the high-lying roles of the electrician who camps it up in the Duchess’s fur and jewels, the crooning lounge lizard, and the willingly seduced room service boy. 

Conductor Mary Chun’s large, loopy beat nevertheless brought forth the dazzling variety of Adès’s witty score, with shades of Strauss, Britten and Stravinsky overtaken by tangos and pop sounds of the early twentieth century.  —Judith Malafronte 

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