Tuesday, August 02, 2016
Powder Her Face
West Edge Opera opened its adventurous summer festival last weekend at the abandoned, crumbling Oakland train station off of Grand Avenue near the Bay Bridge. Sunday afternoon they offered the Bay Area stage premiere of the 1995 Powder Her Face, British composer Thomas Adès' notorious chamber opera about the heiress Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. She had died penniless a year before the piece was composed after running through her considerable fortune over the course of 80 years.
The opera is infamous for its sexually graphic scenes, including a long aria to be sung/hummed by the heroine while giving a blow job to a room service waiter in her lavish hotel suite. The libretto by novelist and journalist Philip Hensher has been alternately praised for its wit and poetry, and condemned for its ungallant, cruel take on a real person. Both reactions are perfectly valid, but after seeing the West Edge production, I am inclined to heap praise on the text, which ranges from sarcastic, class-obsessed journalism to a poignant look at a woman brought down for her voracious sexuality by a vicious, titled husband who from all accounts was a gold-digging, wife-beating monster.
It is the music that is the measure of an opera, and the brilliance of the score by the then-23-year-old Adès was completely unexpected. Every piece I have heard by him at the SF Symphony has sounded thorny and overwritten, but this chamber opera for 15 instrumentalists and four vocalists is full of invention, variety and constant energy, synthesizing Berg and Stravinsky and Britten and popular dance music. It’s easy to hear why this opera vaulted him to fame.
The music is also fiendishly difficult, according to everyone who has ever tried to perform it, and the playing by the San Francisco contemporary music ensemble Earplay, conducted by its music director Mary Chun (above), was exciting and brilliantly executed. They deserve a callout of their own: Claire Martin and Ilana Thomas on violins, Ellen Rose on viola, Adelle Akiko-Kearns on cello, Andrew McCorkle on Contrabass & fishing reel, Peter Josheff on clarinet/bass clarinet, Richard Matthias and David Henderson on a wide range of clarinets and saxophones, Eric Achen on horn, Jason Park on trumpet, Craig McAmis on trombone, James Kassis on percussion, Dan Levitan on harp, Brenda Vahur on piano, and William Long on keyboard.
The four cast members could hardly have been bettered. Laura Bohn as The Duchess gives a great, fearless performance, beautifully sung. She managed to appear alternately swank, gorgeous, and/or haggard depending on the decade and scenario. Tenor Jonathan Blalock, soprano Emma McNairy and baritone Hadleigh Adams (left to right below flanking The Duchess) played a kaleidoscope of supporting roles, everything from from maids to rent boys to journalists to lounge lizards and they were astonishingly good at all.
The unit set designed by Chad Owens, with a huge bed in a hotel suite on which a parade of scenes takes place, worked well, rather like a French farce where the sex is onstage for a change. The lighting design by Ray Oppenheimer and costume design by Christine Crook were huge additions in themselves. The direction by Elkhanah Pulitzer was thoughtful, energetic, and sexed-up to the gills. There wasn’t just the one blow job aria in this staging, but a masturbation aria and sex acts of various descriptions taking place during everything from a divorce judge’s verdict to an adulterous mistress having champagne with the Duke. This could have been uncomfortable for performers and audience alike, but the ensemble cast was remarkably attractive eye candy, their trust in each other was palpable, and the scenes were genuinely sexy.
There are three more performances in the next couple of weeks at the Oakland train station, and I recommend it highly. (Click here for tickets.)
By the way, after the sensational divorce trial that lasted over three years during the early 1960s, which involved British tabloids publishing Polaroid photos of the Duchess giving “headless men” blow jobs, there was an ironic victory of sorts for Margaret Campbell. London high society decided that the Duke of Argyll was an asshole who had gone too far in his revenge, and he was ostracized out of polite society. The Duchess, meanwhile, was invited out everywhere in the ensuing decades before falling into penury, and after being evicted from her fancy hotel in 1990, was supported by her first husband. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)