“I go to bed early,” says Margaret, Duchess of Argyll to a gossip-columnist snoop, “and often.” That said, however, you need to know that Powder Her Face, the opera by Thomas Adès that in six years has blazed a trail of adulation worldwide, from Aspen to Zagreb, is not exactly your basic bedtime story.
What it is, in fact, may not be so easy to relate in a family-oriented publication, but it’s worth the try in the wake of its sensationally successful staging (November 9-18) by California’s undauntable Long Beach Opera. You have to know first that its central character, although made out as the latest in a long line of implausible operatic monsters alongside Lulu, Salome and the Queen of the Night, is this time quite real. Born Margaret Whigham, later the “Mrs. Sweeny” catalogued in Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top,” finally the infamous Duchess whose sexual appetites made headlines in a 1963 scandal that almost scuttled Britain’s Tory government, she died in 1993 at 81, in poverty and ignominy.
Only two years later Powder Her Face, with its deliciously scabrous libretto by Philip Hensher and its defiantly eclectic score, made its own headlines and rocketed its composer – a stripling of 24 at the time – into the underpopulated ranks of true originals among serious composers. The work was first staged, and recorded on EMI Classics, by London’s Almeida Opera; the Long Beach production was the first professional American staging. Most intervening performances, for reasons that will be clear in a minute, have been in concert or “semi-staged.”
The opera hurtles forward in eight brief scenes, starting and ending in 1990 as the impecunious Duchess gets the heave-ho from the hotel manager, and flashing back to early triumph as the “Debutante of the Year” awaits the Duke’s proposal, then to their elegant marriage reception, then downward as the marriage disintegrates and the Duchess must seek fulfillment elsewhere. A hotel waiter cooperates in this regard; as he pours out his, er, heart, the outpouring is received with gurgling concupiscence. (The Duke, meanwhile, also turns a trick or two.) A judge seals the divorce verdict, detailing the Duchess’ “intimate knowledge of perversions which few of us can credit.”
Besides the Duchess — killer music for the fearless dramatic soprano that Irena Sylya almost was save for occasional diction problems — an economical cast takes on multiple roles: a high soprano (the phenomenal Catherine Ireland) as maid, reporter and call-girl, an agile tenor (James Schaffner, a splendid, graceful newcomer) as waiter, bellhop and lounge lizard, a bass (the stentorian Donald Sherrill) as Duke, hotel manager and judge. The orchestra numbers 15, heavy on winds and brass, spangled with whirring, bustling percussion including several fishing reels for a clickety-clack evocation of some down-and-dirty tango. The music throbs, grates and, on occasion, bellows bravely; after the opera’s scant two hours, you get the sense that you’ve heard one each of every kind of music in the books. It’s just that sense of omniscience, in fact, that contributes to the work’s irresistible thrust. “Never a dull moment” may overstate the case, but not by much.
For a company whose last time out was a modern-dress Elektra in a California beach house, the off-the-wall excesses of Powder Her Face seemed made-to-order, and so they proved. On a blocked-off portion of the stage at Cal State-Long Beach’s Carpenter Center, Andrew Lieberman’s designs accomodated both opera and audience – the latter perched on bleachers against the back wall. Against a side wall, Neal Stulberg’s crack little orchestra seethed and throbbed and drenched the premises in audible color. Geoff Korf’s lighting added much, with its dancing shadows conducting a whole ‘nother orgy out on the sidelines. An ornate glassed-in mobile structure served both as hotel room and museum display-case; in David Schweizer’s staging one was never sure whether the Duchess was genuine or stuffed – until, that is, the very end. Then the Duchess, broke and alone, made her slow exit into the empty theater — up and out, very fragile, very human — and suddenly the whole extravaganza of the past two hours took on another, unforgettable dimension. ALAN RICH