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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

33 comments

  • phoenix says:

    Thanks

  • damekenneth says:

    “William Ferguson…allows himself, as a Waiter, to be stripped, assaulted and paid off by her.” Count me in!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    This “Face” opera, by American composer Henry Mollicone, has been one of the most performed operas:

  • Howling in Tune says:

    John, which night did you see this? Sounds like you had a better experience than I did.

  • armerjacquino says:

    Is the Duchess counted as a mezzo role? The two singers I have seen/heard play her, Jill Gomez and Mary Plazas, are both lyric sopranos.

    • Hans Lick says:

      Allison Cook calls herself a mezzo-soprano, though she has sung Salome. She is also a Brangaene, which could be either one.

    • Will says:

      Apparently it’s one of “those” roles that can ve either depending on whether one is a mezzo with a real top or a soprano with a secure lower voice. In a production of PHF that we had in Boston ten years ago, it was sung by Jana Baty who has done both soprano and mezzo roles (and almost contralto in an opera for which I wrote the libretto).

    • Krunoslav says:

      Turns out that La Cieca’s favorite, la Gomez, is now a Countess offstage!

      “Gomez lives in Cambridgeshire with her husband, music critic Patrick Carnegy, 15th Earl of Northesk.”

      • Hans Lick says:

        Interesting, Krunoslav!
        Do you know him? (Wikipedia merely says they “live together,” so I presume the marriage is fairly recent.

        Carnegy has evidently been a distinguished music critic for many years, the author of a work on Wagner and the Art of Theatre that, wonder of wonders, is on my shelves but I’ve never read it. (I guess I should, but it’s so … thick.)

        He inherited the earldom quite recently from a distant cousin whose branch of the family had a bunch of tragic early deaths.

          • Camille says:

            I don’t care what you all say — I like “Upstairs, Downstairs” better, and I really disn’t like it all that much, either.

          • Camille says:

            The truth of the matter

            For Mr. Edward George, the kind gentleman who first alerted me to and advised of this lovely film, because of our mutual admiration of Anton Walbrook. A small and belated thank you.

          • armerjacquino says:

            That still looks freakishly like Victor Garber.

          • Krunoslav says:

            Walbrook was and Garber is gay; the former was half-Jewish (hence his timely decamping from Austria to the UK) the latter is Jewish (and Canadian born).

          • Camille says:

            Gay, straight, or anywhere in between the two poles, I really don’t give a flying f——. He is a most wonderful actor and that is what I love of him. He conveys something very intimate, and from deep within the dark crevices of the human soul. And don’t you dare, any smart asses, make fun of that, either.

            If I had been that blithering idiot, Victoria Page of THE RED SHOES, I would have dumped that numnutz composer husband in a THRICE, and followed the Meister anywhere he wanted me to “Dance, little Vicki, dance!”!!!!!!!!!

          • armerjacquino says:

            Wallbrook’s final resting place (alongside John Constable, Kay Kendall and Peter Cook, among others) is about a mile from where I’m sitting.

          • manou says:

            So I am not that far from you armer…

          • armerjacquino says:

            Well, manou, you know how a certain kind of actor is described as ‘more Cricklewood than Hollywood’…

          • Camille says:

            Someday —- and only if you truly care to do so, armerjacquino —-
            place a pure white camellia on his resting place for me and tell him many thanks.

            Thank you.

          • armerjacquino says:

            Will do, Camille! I am often in the area because, ahem, there’s a rather nice pub next door.

          • manou says:

            Well armer -- I guess this makes me more Primrose Hill than Beverly Hills.

          • Camille says:

            Dear armerjacq,
            Greatly obliged and I thank you sincerely for such a gentlemanly and courteous gesture.

            Yours truly,
            Camille

        • Krunoslav says:

  • Vergin Vezzosa says:

    Thanks for the absolutely spot on review. Just back from this afternoon’s performance and couldn’t agree more. If I would add anything, it is that the contrast between the two acts was fascinating to me. The first, with all of the sex, is a riot. The second, with all of the introspective reflections by the Duchess, is surprisingly touching and for me lended a somewhat unexpected depth to the work. Mr. Ades and his team have provided considerable food for thought and created quite a memorable character in the Duchess. Am very glad to have seen it.

    • Camille says:

      I find it rather appalling a “Vergin” would attend an opera with this scabrous and scandalous matter at its heart. How will you be able to trail your candida vestita if frequenting such entertainments?

      My word!

      • Vergin Vezzosa says:

        Hi Camille. Sitting in the BAM mezzanine, I was safely in the “look but do not touch” zone so my status has remained intact. There was indeed a lot to look at. Whew. I am also good to go if I know what I am getting into as was the case this afternoon. I only get creeped out when simulated sex is IMHO gratuitous as with the gypsy whores and soldiers in Act III, Scene 1 of the current Met Trovatore, or the stupid staging of the trio in the Sher Met Ory, or during the great Act IV duo in the Bard Huguenots a few years ago. If I’ve got old Aunt Tilly or a conservative business contact or a serious Catholic guest from Latin America, etc. as my “date” at the opera, I don’t want to see them offended when one would not expect it and it was not integral, either musically or dramatically, to the scene.

        • Hans Lick says:

          SO agree with you, Vergin! On all those instances. Except it’s not the guests — I’m annoyed by those stagings because the originals are so good. Comte Ory is funny, but only IMHO if the Count has no idea he’s in a threesome; Huguenots’ Raoul kind of loses any stature in my eyes if the only reason he doesn’t run out to save his friends from massacre is the possibility of a little jellyroll — Thaddaeus Strassburger deserves a SHARP rap on the knuckles or maybe someplace that will hurt more, and Bart Sher is the most overrated director of our time.

          But, leave us face it (as they would have said in old Brooklyn), the reigning art of our time is Porn, and it colors every other attempt at artistic expression. I have no use for it myself, don’t own any, never watch it … except on the opera stage and modern dance and FX movies of course.

          Camille — With you on Upstairs Downstairs.

        • Camille says:

          Greatly relieved to know you remain virgo intacto and were not splattered, dear.

          Certainly agree with you about the gratuitous frottagement or whatever it is called, in the Act IV duo in Huguenots. If one doesn’t already “get it” from the music, well then there is no hope for one…!

          Now I am wondering if another old lady, namely MOI, should attend as I am clearly curious, but yellow…?

          • Vergin Vezzosa says:

            Camille, I would recommend that you go. I am still thinking about it a lot and realize that I ended up caring about the Duchess as a character. A lot of good giggles too. Got to go, have to fluff before leaving for Parsifal, for which I have made myself rest for most of the day.

          • manou says:

            More obscene innuendo!

          • Camille says:

            Quelle scandale! As the Duchess of Krakenthorp would say, unlike Duchess of Argyll, from whom we get those charming sweaters, come to think of it.

  • messa di voce says:

    “indeed, that many penises (however sizable) soon cease to hold our interest”

    Speak for yourself.