Changing Class, Complicit Society—and That Sex Scene

United StatesUnited States Adès, Powder Her Face: Soloists, New York City Opera Orchestra, Jonathan Stockhammer (conductor), New York City Opera, BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 17.2.2013 (DA)


Duchess: Allison Cook
Maid: Nili Riemer
Duke/Judge/Hotel Manager: Matt Boehler
Electrician/Lounge Lizard/Waiter: William Ferguson
Actors: Kaneza Schaal, Jon Morris
Libretto: Philip Hensher
Director: Jay Scheib
Sets: Marsha Ginsberg
Costumes: Alba Clemente
Lighting: Thomas Dunn
Projections: Josh Higgason

“Enough / Or too much?” So concludes Thomas Adès’s outstanding first opera, though one is tempted to ask a similar question about the amount of this composer’s work being performed in New York this year. Adès’s two rather different operas—Powder Her Face and his full-scale, three-act The Tempest—have been on show in extended runs presented by two very different companies, the beleaguered New York City Opera and the titanic Metropolitan Opera.

Powder Her Face, a farce based on the exploits of the socialite Duchess of Argyll, would seem a perfect fit for NYCO, and it is the more convincing of Adès’s two stage works. The forces it requires are small: only four singers and an orchestra countable on fingers and toes. Its infamy—yes, there’s a blowjob, and yes, there was one in this production too—and Adès’s rising stock guarantee good sales. NYCO even found room for extras in the production department, layering Adès’s time shifts with two actors, a camerawoman projecting live on stage, and two-dozen male nudes. Budget restraints apparently prevented the penis count from hitting the eighty-eight that would have symbolized the central character’s reputed number of sexual conquests.

Much of this performance was excellent, especially in the musical department. However, Jay Scheib’s production, whilst entertaining, too often veered towards the “too much” side of the librettist Philip Hensher’s rhetorical question.

It’s astonishing to think that Adès was twenty-four and Hensher barely older when they constructed Powder Her Face, and not only for the obvious precocity of their talents. The real-life Duchess was a dignified character at once personifying and straining against a changing world, with her mix of rightly unabashed sexual energy and her commitment to a quickly-splintering society. Adès and Hensher conjure a sense of loss from their protagonist, a regret at the end of private lives and even a sense of tradition. “There was a future once,” sings Allison Cook’s Duchess, “because there was a past.”

But, as with everything Adès does there is a self-conscious cleverness in the ambiguity and ambivalence to this opera, and it risks collapsing into its own nihilism. So complex is his Duchess that she is hard to empathize with. Adès and Hensher never make it clear how we are supposed to feel about their Duchess, so bleak and hopeless is the long, long final scene that seems self-consciously to ape the hellfires of Don Giovanni with its low bass calling final judgment upon a sexually immoral lead. (Immoral, of course, as society judges it.) It’s not a modest link to make on Adès’s part—Hensher specifically has the Judge call the Duchess a “Don Juan among women”—and unlike Mozart he cannot seem to make the Duchess’s tale into a satisfying morality play. No “Ah, dov’è il perfido?” scene here to round things off in Enlightenment style: only a rootlessly postmodern “Enough / Or too much?” as two men and a woman strip each other.

Nobody escapes Adès’s vision here, not least because he has everyone but the lead soprano take on multiple roles to show how every section of society is complicit. The aristocracy are exposed as frauds. The Judge’s pompous cries of “Order!” and “Justice!” undermine the idea of the law as an arbiter any more neutral than the whims and prejudices of society. The Duchess’s seeming feminism is undercut as Adès and Hensher show how obviously she is trapped in a society controlled by men: the Duke who exposes her despite his own transgressions; the nudes who emerge onto the stage but who are resolutely unconcerned with the Duchess and just want to watch pornography on television; the Judge who sentences her despite his own hypocrisy (Scheib unnecessarily—for the reference is in the music—has him receiving his own blowjob under the table); and finally the Manager who gives her a final embarrassment by refusing her usual method of negotiating society, sex. The chattering classes are just as fickle and immoral as their superiors, even as a female Rubbernecker—played by the same singer as the Maid—begins to think that she can have the freedoms of a Duchess she castigates. The tabloid press stay peripheral in the opera itself, but Scheib rightly drew attention to their role through periodic flashes, a reporter constantly having her seat swept from under her, and a film artist projecting images of the production itself onto the back wall—even a television screen.

Adès and Hensher’s characters are brutally, viciously exposed, to a very un-British extent. The point of tabloid culture is that the rags can say things that the British people have a veneer of wanting left unsaid, but which they will gobble up given half the chance. But Powder loses that sense of reticence, and makes sarcasm knowing rather than weary.

Rootlessness, especially of the moral kind, is of course characteristic of so much of postwar society, including British society. These dramatists could hardly do better in pointing out our hypocrisies: perhaps it is indicative, equally, of our society that they point to no way out.

There is a musical patchwork to match the moral restlessness. Adès’s great achievement is to take a musical atmosphere so clearly derivative from a litany of prior composers and make it his own. Berg, Janacek, Stravinsky, Strauss, 1930s ballads and 1950s percussion all vie for primacy, and none win. The collage, linked by Adès’s supreme talent for beat and rhythm, remains only skin deep, but then so are his Duchess’s passions. There are hints of his future music here, especially the tone poem Tevot and Ariel in The Tempest, but the zest of Powder Her Face seems to go beyond much of Adès’s later work. Here, the reduced NYCO Orchestra played with vigour and wit, although conductor Jonathan Stockhammer could have done much more to make Adès’s rhythms point and dance more precisely, despite his admirable maintenance of dramatic and musical flow.

On the whole Jay Scheib’s production works well, and costumes, sets, and lighting are of pleasantly high quality. At times Scheib goes too far, even beyond some of the more lurid of Hensher’s lines (“I want some beef,” sings the Duchess before blowing the waiter; “The Duchess looks after the staff,” crows an onlooker.) He also leaves too much unexplained, like actor Jon Morris’s athletic runs across stage, slamming into the side wall, or actress Kaneza Schaal’s licit but druggy secretary-cum-nurse. Trees dot the back of the stage as a courtroom takes up the front: perhaps ‘natural’ justice and nature itself are being juxtaposed, but it is never clear. But the entertainment and sheer busyness of his direction keep this from sagging.

NYCO’s four singers were all superb. Allison Cook’s Duchess captures the stout ambivalence and indignant confidence of Adès’s leading lady, and she sings, Lulu-esque, with great pizzazz. So too does Nili Riemer in her athletic vocal lines, ably matching sound to text and phrase to meaning. Of the men, Duke, Judge, and Hotel Manager Matt Boehler projected depth and a natty sense of false dignity, without overacting where there is clear potential to do so, particularly handing down his jurist’s monologue. William Ferguson sang with clarity throughout, and with impressive attention to the varying styles Adès demands of his tenor.

So, “Enough / Or too much?” Characteristically of this composer, in this production Adès and his collaborators give us both.

David Allen

Born in Nottingham, Great Britain, David Allen is a first-year doctoral student in International and Global History at Columbia University. He has previously studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and Harvard University. One day he will combine his musical interests with his academic work in international relations, but for the moment he reviews concerts and operas, and blogs at