It is rare that one gets to see a second production of a contemporary opera in the same city just a decade after the first. To complete its “British Invasion” festival, the Odyssey Opera has chosen the remarkable 1995 opera Powder Her Face by Thomas Adès. The opera was actually performed 12 years ago in Boston under the same conductor, Gil Rose. Its musical challenges and colorful story aroused much attention, and many people who were unable to see it regretted the lack and hoped they could have another chance. This is it.
For Rose, it became the perfect selection to end the Odyssey Opera Festival because it brought the survey of English opera up to date with a work by a living composer who has become extraordinarily famous in the last two decades. It is, moreover, in many ways a practical opera to perform, requiring only four singers and fifteen instruments in the pit (though everyone involved faces major musical challenges), and there was a certain degree of pent-up demand.
Though both productions, 2003 and 2015, followed the instructions in the score quite closely, they were nonetheless rather strikingly different in feeling and look. The older performance took place on the small stage of the Massachusetts College of Art, with a very simple setting. The new production is in the theater of the Boston Conservatory, which has a much more spacious feel and a sense of luxury suitable to the story of a woman who lived the high life before her fall. A simple touch—the fact that the back wall of the stage is set at an angle—gives a sense of spaciousness, of a large, comfortable hotel room. This room, the setting of the opening and closing scenes from 1990, also serves flexibly for the remaining scenes, set into this framework, which move chronologically between 1934 and 1970.
Nic Muni’s stage design, lighting design, and above all stage direction brought clarity and life to the stage action, and give the singers many splendid touches in their characterization. Three of the four singers play multiple roles across the years covered by the play; he created effective and varied ways for them to present themselves in each persona. And he added wonderful small touches of activity, enlivening the bare description in the libretto, which kept the movement from scene to scene exceptionally fluid.
The orchestra consisted of fifteen of Boston’s top players, each a soloist in the context of the whole, and each facing a part that is exceptionally demanding, with very specific instructions from the composer at every step, including such detailed matters as indicating to the string players what part of the bow to place on the string. And since each player is a soloist, the only one on that part, such detail makes for astonishing richness of varied colors. As before, Gil Rose was the master of the score and kept the entire elaborate musical network in control.
But the real challenge in the opera is to the singers, who must deal with parts covering a very wide range, sometimes a rapid articulation of syllables, and lines that, while sometime melodic in a more or less traditional sense, often require large leaps and sudden changes of register. (In particular these leaps sometimes make it difficult to understand the words, though the singers all showed excellent diction when the composer allows them to use it.)
Philip Hensher’s libretto is based rather freely on the life of a celebrity of the 1930s and onward, Margaret Campbell (known after her first marriage as Mrs. Sweeney, and referred to by that name in Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top”). She married three times (in the opera only twice); the last of these in 1951 to the Duke of Argyll, which gave her the title of “Duchess.” In the opera her own name is never used, only the title or a genteel “Your Grace.” The marriage to the Duke ended with great scandal, in a long divorce trial that brought forth evidence of an enthusiastically active sex life on the part of the Duchess, documented by a large number of photographs of her with various men (many of whom were depicted naked, but with their head not included in the shot, leading to open season on guessing what notable they might be, whether political figure, movie actor, or tradesman). Since the Duke brought the suit for divorce, his own wide-ranging philandering was apparently not brought up at the trial, which—astonishingly—lasted from 1959 to 1963.
The result of the scandal was devastating to the Duchess. She mostly lived in hotel, at first presenting herself as a guide to manners, fashion, and elegance, but finally being booted out of the hotel when her money has run out and her bill is far in arrears; that day forms the frame for the beginning and end of the opera.
The historical setting for each scene was effectively set by a newspaper page projected on the back wall with a real historical news item (such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953) and a neighboring item of society news indicating the next turn in the life of the Duchess.
To tell this story of louche activities among the nobility (and nobility by marriage), Adès and Hensher use just four singers—a soprano as the Duchess and three others filling in multiple parts.
Patricia Schuman was superb as the Duchess, arrogant and elegant when she was on top of the world, increasingly needy as that world fell apart. The role calls on her to perform an act of oral sex on a hotel employee in one scene, something that is to my knowledge unique in the annals of opera (it is handled discreetly, though there is no doubt what is going on). Near the end she has a touching scene alone, as she suddenly realizes that she can no longer talk her way out of debt and that she hardly knows what to do (in real life, she died soon after). In all of these twists and turns in her life, Schuman captures the essence of the woman while singing her part beautifully and with great expressiveness.
A coloratura soprano is required for the hotel maid who also appears in successive scenes as a confidante to the Duchess, a waitress, the Duke’s mistress, a rubbernecker at the divorce trial, and a society reporter (amusingly presented here as Gloria Steinem, according to the “newspaper page” flashed in the back wall). At the beginning of the opera, she is in the Duchess’s room laughing hysterically at an electrician who has dressed in her clothes and is putting on a drag show when the Duchess suddenly returns. The orchestral introduction ends in instrumental laughter picked up by the maid, whose own staccato laughs characterize a good bit of the vocal writing for her part—ranging widely and suddenly between high and low registers. Amanda Hall had the precision of her coloratura to find those difficult notes (and many others) and the acting chops to represent the Duke’s mistress, who clues him in on his wife’s amatory activities and helps him locate the incriminating photos, as a Cockney observer at the divorce trial making cutting observations about the doings of the upper crust, and as the “Gloria Steinem” interviewer. There are a number of places where Adès has not helped her in the projection of the words with the rapid changes of register she is required to sing, but in more traditional lines, she was both clear and vocally effective.
Tenor Daniel Norman is the Electrician who makes fun of the Duchess going drag in her clothes, and as a Lounge Lizard indulging in an affair with the lady and predicting that she will seduce the Duke, as the Priest who married Duke and Duchess, as a rubbernecker at the divorce trial, and as a delivery boy who is the recipient of the Duchess’s sexual favors. He is superbly effective as an actor in these different characters while characterizing the individuals most effectively with his singing voice in various colors.
The baritone Ben Wager appears first (and last) as the Hotel Manager, then for a large part of the opera as the Duke, later as the Judge issuing his verdict in the trial. He creates all these characters very effectively, but Adès makes demands on the lower end of the range that is almost too low for him, while the basic quality of his baritone is beautiful in itself and in projecting the characters he presents.
In an opera like this, with its satirical mode and circusy manner of presentation, it should be no surprise to find musical wit inherent in the score as well. Sometimes this comes in a recreation of the character of a period’s popular music as a way of setting context (the very opening, for example, takes us to the 1930s, though there is no actual quotation of familiar songs from that time). Elsewhere the young composer’s familiarity with the operatic repertory is evident with references—near quotations—to passages like the presentation of the silver rose in Rosenkavalier or the character of Baba the Turk in The Rake’s Progress and probably many more to be discovered as one grows more closely acquainted with this imaginative, lively score.
The superb performance of Powder Her Face at the Boston Conservatory Theater is a fitting close to Odyssey Opera’s remarkable, rich, varied schedule of English operas over the last month. It maintains the high standard of production and performance that has been evident all along and further burnishes the growing reputation of this still quite-young company.
“Powder Her Face” repeats on Saturday June 20 and Sunday June 21 at the Boston Conservatory Theater.