Composer: Thomas Adès
Conductor: Jonathan Stockhammer
Director: Jay Scheib
Duchess: Allison Cook
Maid: Nili Riemer
Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter: William Ferguson
Duke, Judge, Hotel Manager: Matt Boehler
It had been a long, long wait, but on Friday evening I was happily bracing myself for Powder Her Face, the reputedly raunchy tale of sex (a lot), drugs (a little) and opera (all of it), with a touch of British aristocracy for good measure, at the much hyped BAM multi-arts center in Brooklyn, where I hadn't been yet. Written when Thomas Adès was only 24, the work's main claims to fame include being inspired by real-life Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, AKA "The Dirty Duchess", and featuring what is probably the first musical depiction of a fellatio in opera history, which consequently had the whole composition banned from The British radio station Classic FM. But then again, there is no bad publicity, and a new enfant terrible was born in the process.
I was also eager to visit The New York City Opera' new home, and it turned out to be a wonderful surprise. Never mind the box office's disorganization which had the performance start over 15 minutes late, as soon as I stepped into the historic Howard Gilman Opera House, I found a space of a welcoming intimate size and attractive architectural details, much more appropriate for a small-scale chamber opera than the acoustically challenged David H. Koch Theater at the Lincoln Center. So while I missed the short trip home and the cheaper tickets, I also felt that crossing the East River may have been a good move after all.
Sex and money (Love is out of the picture for that one) have often made storylines go round, and here again, a promiscuous British Duchess' sexual shenanigans, which became fodder of endless gossips and speculation during her divorce in 1963, provide enough material for two and a half hours of adventurously dissonant music, a bold exploration of sexual morality, class warfare and societal hypocrisy, and nudity galore. Oh, and it also comes with some sharp witticisms here and there to make sure that we do not take it too seriously.
The Duchess, an improbable but relatively real combination of the aristocratic Marschallin for the fear of aging and femme fatale Lulu for the devil-may-care depravity, required a fearless leading lady, and this production found one in British mezzo-soprano Allison Cook. Throwing herself in the part with the same determination as the Duchess did in her multiple affairs, she at least remained solidly in charge of her course of action and delivered a totally engaging interpretation of a not particularly sympathetic woman. The fact that she looked mighty good in racy black lingerie certainly did not hurt either. But beside being blessed with a versatile physique that allowed her to move credibly through the span of five decades, she can also boast of a powerful voice possessing an impressive flexibility as well as a solid technique that enabled her to navigate the treacherous score without flinching. During the last two scenes, she just grabbed the spotlight for an emotionally and musically gripping tour de force.
As her Maid and - incidentally - the Duke's mistress, soprano Nili Riemer proved to be a decidedly noticeable presence too, and not just because of her eerie resemblance to Adèle, if the latter had red hair. Her agile and pretty coloratura, however, was definitely her own. And she unquestionably knew how to use it to make herself heard and state her points. She may be the lowly servant in the story, but this talented singer will not stand in anyone's shadow.
The male cast had a lot going for it too, in particular with bass Matt Boehler, who moved easily from the hapless Duke to the grandiloquent judge to the merciless hotel manager. Chameleonic tenor William Ferguson got to show a remarkable singing range while impersonating the Electrician, the Lounge Lizard and the Waiter, and I suspect there may be still more where it came from.
The sets consisted of several compartmentalized spaces and a few accessories that were swiftly moved around as needed. The audience even got to have a peek behind the scenes as a cameraman was often "backstage" streaming live what was going on there, from cocaine-snorting to trips to the toilet. This gave the production an unusual edge, but it also added chaos and overstimulation. There could be too much of a good thing at times. The less agitated moments, however, carried power and purpose.
The most memorable scene by unofficial general consensus had to be the fourth one, incidentally more or less half-way through the opera. In it we find a languorously relaxing Duchess whose room is little by little invaded by over twenty strappy young men, who also happen to be stark naked. Embodying the woman's previous liaisons, they leisurely move around, casually strike a pose or take a minute or two to watch the Duke's videotaped sexual encounter with the Maid that is playing in non-stop rotation on a TV while she casually calls room service to order a beef sandwich. The Waiter who will deliver the order will be tipped in nature in the daring onstage act that earned the opera its overnight notoriety. And he will get plenty of cash too.
The music may not be immediately appealing to ears used to more conventional fare, but its intrinsic grittiness had a genuine rawness that brilliantly emphasizes the Duchess' shameless extravagances, uncompromising behavior and eventual downfall. Creating his own special cocktail from Berg and Stravinsky for the contemporary dissonances, Kurt Weill for the decadent expressionism and Piazzola for the sensual tangos, Adès has come up with a score that did take a bit of work for me to get into, but once I was there, there was no turning back. Conductor Jonathan Stockhammer did an admirable job negotiating the challenging composition and drew a brave, vibrant performance from his musicians.
The ovation from the relatively young crowd was long and enthusiastic as the whole cast, production team and composer took the stage. And deservedly so.