By Daniel Fox
Opera Philadelphia at The Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theatre
Performances 12, 14, 16 June 2013
The early work of a composer can offer surprisingly accurate hints of what is to come. Shostakovich’s first piano trio, written by a sixteen year-old in love, has many of the seeds that would grow into his second piano trio, a central work in his oeuvre. Edmund Morris characterizes the once lost Joseph II cantata by a 19 year-old Beethoven as a first draft for the Ode to Joy. Since the premiere of Powder Her Face in 1995, the English composer, conductor, and pianist Thomas Adès has become a dominating figure in contemporary music. His works are performed by the grandest ensembles in the most hallowed halls all over Europe and the Americas. He has produced stunning and original works in every major genre. It is fascinating to hear some of the seeds for these works in Powder Her Face.
“Powder Her Face, Scene 1”
The opera catalogs the scandalous fall from grace of the Duchess of Argyll who, as recently as 17 February 2013, is still being written about in the British press. The overture is a tango rendered like an overblown photographic exposure as it navigates between dreamy exaggeration and disorientingly direct stylistic quotation. The curtain rises to reveal the Electrician of a hotel in drag, seductively sung by Christopher Tiesi, impersonating the Duchess of Argyll. The Maid (Ahsley Emerson) is, at first, the only audience for this mockery and she laughs through the duet. The arrival of the actual Duchess of Argyll, sung by Patricia Schuman with a haughty regal presence, interrupts the obscene cavorting. The Electrician’s cross-dressing antics turn on its head the operatic tradition of “trouser roles,” in which female singers play (sometimes amorous) male roles.
In the first act of the opera the Duchess is marginalized for all but the famous ‘fellatio aria’. For example, the wedding scene in which a recently divorced Mrs. Freeling becomes the Duchess of Argyll is dominated by the aria “Fancy, fancy being rich” in which the Waitress (Ahsley Emerson) waxes poetic about the wonders of aspic. Emerson gives an elegant performance. The aria has a calm center in which the orchestra congeals into a cool, transparent ‘emulsion.’ The instrumental writing foreshadows the calm center of the first movement of Adès’s 2005 violin concerto.
The opera has an insistent physicality of the verismo variety: the score is full of laughing, coughing, and grunts; we witness orgasm both with pleasure and embarrassed distaste; we hear ridiculously distended syllables (‘siiiiii-lence’). There are also humorous fidelities in the score: when a record is put on the gramophone, the score indicates that the music’s tempo is 78 beats per minute.
The musicologist and critic Richard Taruskin characterized Adès as a “masterly musical surrealist” working in “outlandish juxtapositions of evocative sound-objects that hover…in a seemingly motionless sonic emulsion.” We catch glimpses of these wondrous sound-objects in a performance of the work that emphasizes the physical, bodily reality of the music. Opera Philadelphia’s pit orchestra was led by Corrado Rovaris through a fine performance of the difficult score. Occasionally the singers were overpowered by the cavorting score but the production as a whole is carried off well.
The libretto by Philip Hensher is playful and absurd. In Paul Griffiths’ 1995 review of the opera’s premiere he notes that the “language and behavior are curiously obvious and banal.” This perception may be due, in part, to the litanies in the libretto. There are lists of extravagance (“too much money,” “lobster,” “champagne”), of time (“an hour before the Duke comes,” “an hour before tea,” “two hours before dressing,” “three before cocktails,” “four before dinner”), of foods in aspic (“cut fruit,” “vegetable shapes,” “whole chicken,” “fish”), of the Duchess’s beauty secrets (“cold water seven times a day,” “cold cream,” “never tire yourself,” “never walk,” “never allow things to affect you,” “never touch money”), of minority slurs (against blacks, Jews, and homosexuals), and of service professions (hatter, wig maker, priest).
The lists recall Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. The tinta of that opera, the elusive but essential color with which Verdi aimed to infuse each of his operas, is imitation and mockery. The most pervasive use of imitation is in the form of lists that provide a humorous commentary on the operatic convention of time-suspending arias. Verdi found such arias antithetical to his aim of maintaining dramatic momentum. At the end of his life, he composed a critique of operatic conventions under the guise of self mockery—an old man passing off lists for narrative. The lists of Hensher’s libretto indulge a comic air that similarly borders on the absurd.
The libretto of Powder Her Face is rammed full of fetishized words: ‘Madam,’ ‘beef,’ and ‘squiffy’ are repeated an inane number of times and they lodge in your sonic memory. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “squiffy” as intoxicated. The word is also used to mean “askew”, and the citation illustrating this secondary usage sent me down a rabbit hole which, surprisingly, led back to this aspic filled opera. The citation is a line by G. Melly, who, among other things was an art critic specializing in surrealism. His work overlaps with that of Dawn Adès, an important surrealist scholar and Thomas Adès’s mother. The set and costume design by Tom Rogers charmingly accented the Adès family’s surrealist inclincations: look out for the giant lips, the disembodied serving arms, and what I couldn’t help but perceive as Salvador Dalí’s displaced moustache.
The bass character of the opera, performed by Ben Wager, passes judgment on the Duchess whether he is in the role of the Duke or the Judge. But the opera does not pass judgement on the Duchess. The opera relishes its banal lists and holds each character at arms length. I left the opera knowing as much about aspic as about the Duchess. When Wager returns at the end as Death, personified as an incorruptible Hotel Manager, he only insists with a delicate glissando that, her bills long unpaid, her time is up.
Daniel Fox is a composer and a mathematician. He is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the Community College of Philadelphia and a candidate for the M.M. in Composition at Temple University.