State of Her Grace

Like Miss Adelaide the well-known fiancée in Guys and Dolls, the New York City Opera may be down but she’s not flat as all that. Settled in at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Brooklyn is in New York City too, y’know), the company has opened its 2013 season of four operas with an irresistible, funny and sad production of Thomas Adès’s outrageous first opera, Powder Her Face.  

The production is swift-paced and contemporary, multi-faceted and startling in its contrast of symbol and archetype with the degradingly everyday, in juxtaposing action with video of offstage and onstage moments. The four young singers of its many roles give stellar, astonishing performances. It’s a thrilling evening of vocal drama, though some of the production’s directorial excesses intrude on appreciation of the work, and the awkward acoustics of BAM’s covered orchestral pit obscure much of the detail of this elegant, many-layered score. They should be heard because Adès’s scoring, like his line-settings and Philip Hensher’s carefully constructed libretto, has been designed with exceptional wit.

The story of Powder Her Face is ripped from today’s headlines—okay, yesterday’s headlines—from revelations in court during the racy 1963 divorce trial of the licentious Duchess of Argyll. She was an aging socialite, a lady prone to giving parties at which (it turned out) she was often prone with someone or other. But she had been hymned by Cole Porter in “You’re the Top,” of which song Adès concocts an elegant spoof—and even an obscene parody of his spoof. The spoof singer is the suave, Astaire-like William Ferguson, who also gets into drag and falsetto to parody the Duchess giving an interview, and allows himself, as a Waiter, to be stripped, assaulted and paid off by her.

Of course names have been omitted to protect, uh, the names. Our characters in the opera are the Duchess, the Duke, the Maid and the Electrician. (He can’t be the Duke of Argyll, you know; that kilt is not the Campbell tartan.) The drunkard Duke also sings the hypocritical Judge and the psychopomp Hotel Manager; the various Maids (and a society reporter) are all one soprano; the tenor Electrician is many waiters and lovers, and the mezzo-soprano sings the Duchess, our heroine and cynosure, who has been almost as many people as she has done. There is no chorus and, other companies take note: Powder Her Face could be given in a unit set with only four people on stage. At City Opera, though, there are thirty-two, though only four of them sing.

Adès, twenty-four when the opera premiered, is far too witty to tell just one story or to confine himself to any one style: We hear pastiches and parodies, arioso and melisma, coloratura and pop tune, tawdry tangos and wispy waltzes and, notoriously, the Duchess “performing” on a Waiter, her progress depicted by orchestra and voice, conflating and confounding fellatio with song. Her rising and versatile gorge puns on the gorgeous excesses of operatic vocalism. And each instrument has its part to play, its tale to tell (there are seventeen musicians but far more instruments for them to ply), each rhythm and raucous note given its due by conductor Jonathan Stockhammer. What the score always is is consciously theatrical, entertaining while it tells its story and makes its points.

There is social commentary on class warfare and judicial hypocrisy and newshound excess. There is poignant self-analysis for an ego not given to self-question. It is the story of a fall from the innocence the Duchess maintains at her trial, a fall from grace, symbolized by the obsequious address of “Your Grace” made by her servants and inferiors at the start of the opera, gradually omitted as she progresses through her memories. Faith is another of the items she has lost sight of; also Justice and Order, as the Judge reminds her. Evidently they fell off her dressing table while she was snorting cocaine.

One key to what Adès is up to may be found in the Judge’s Summation that opens Act II, an “aria” of astounding range and restrained statement, scathingly performed, often in near-falsetto, by the hilarious Matt Boehler. The Judge, almost audibly holding his nose, describes the Duchess (who admitted to eighty-eight lovers) as “a female Don Juan.” The composer and librettist Hensher have highlighted this glib comparison.

There is no citation of Mozart from the orchestra (such as Offenbach or Barber might have provided), but we are intended to wonder if this is indeed the story of a woman trapped in the wrong opera, or the wrong gender. This is underlined in the concluding scenes, when the Hotel Manager (Boehler again, now scraping the sinister depths of his bass), implacable as a Man of Stone, arrives to tell her that her bills are unpaid, her time run out, her departure imminent.

The Duchess is a counterpart of Don Giovanni not only in her egocentric classism but in her crushing solitude, the alienation her money and rank have produced. “No one ever loved me unless they were paid for it,” she sings, in her moment of introspection. She does not regret, she barely remembers, her many men. She is nostalgic for servants, a nanny, a sympathetic maid—the maid (Nili Riemer, in deliciously, bitchily edged coloratura peals) who betrayed her follies to her husband during a bed session with him? Perhaps that very one. There have been so many.

Don Giovanni’s only real relationship, you recall, was with Leporello, whom he beat and abused and bribed, who served and envied him, the factotum who boasted of the number of the Don’s affairs (calculation is a servile not an aristocratic thing to do), just as the Maid crows over the Duchess. Powder Her Face is, therefore, a story of loneliness, akin to Bartok’s Bluebeard and Wagner’s Dutchman but with an abandoned female protagonist.

Our abandoned female is mezzo-soprano Allison Cook, a specialist in new opera overseas and in decadent figures (the Marquise de Merteuil!)  She is slim and sneeringly gracious, maintaining her hauteur whether athletically blowing the Waiter or pulling a chair out from under a reporter, and she looks slim and tigerish, bored but dangerous and apt to devour, in period hair styles and Alba Clemente’s period costumes, many of which seem to have clutching hands or clutching flames among their motifs.

A certain hollowness would be permissible in this vacant woman at the core of a vacant life, but Cook fills it with anguish as palpable as her scorn. “There is no beauty any more,” she says, looking about her and including us in her withering look. She is rude of course, but she is also touching. Left alone to face eviction from life, she reminds us of ourselves.

Jay Scheib not only directed the show, he took the penultimate bow from stage center, implying his importance, after the conductor and just before the unassuming composer appeared. He had many amusing ideas, but he has, in my opinion, overdone it, has not known where less would be more effective. Those 25 naked guys wandering aimlessly around the stage in scene four do not enhance one’s thrills (and I’m sure they aren’t meant to); indeed, that many penises (however sizable) soon cease to hold our interest.

But they do distract attention from the point of the scene, the Duchess’s seduction and fellatio (vividly depicted in the orchestra and her vocalism) of a waiter. But we already know this is far from a unique event because the whole score says so; too, the waiter admits it’s happened before, while she’s forgotten who he is. If the Duchess blows, Scheib overblows: If he staged Don Giovanni, would a thousand and three women in mantillas parade across the stage during the Catalogue Aria? And what would that prove? That Leporello wasn’t making it up? Lies, damned lies, statistics.

I felt similarly manipulated by the hint of someone under the table “performing” during the Judge’s egregious expressions of disgust at the Duchess’s morals. Yeah, society’s hypocritical, we got that. We got it long ago, from the rise of the curtain at the latest. But not everyone who preaches conventional morality is ipso facto a slut. The self-caricature of the Judge’s denunciation is quite clear, especially as wittily set by Mr. Adès and superbly sung by Mr. Boehler. The rest is strawberry icing on the lasagna. There is nothing to be gained by icing one’s lasagna. One should know when to stop.

Photo: Pavel Antonov