“Powder Her Face” proves a fitting climax to Odyssey Opera’s British festival

June 19, 2015 at 3:48 pm

By David Wright

Amanda Hall and Ben Wager in Odyssey Opera’s production of Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face.”

In the next-to-last scene of Powder Her Face, the opera with which a 24-year-old Thomas Adès bowled over the operatic establishment in 1995, the once notorious, now aging character called only The Duchess grants an interview.

The world has changed, she says, and the affairs and sexual exploits with which she scandalized England in the 1950s hardly raise an eyebrow any more. “Buggery is legal!” she laments.

Tell that to the audience Thursday night at the Boston Conservatory Theater, where Odyssey Opera revived Powder Her Face in a powerful new production conceived by Nic Muni and conducted by Gil Rose. The opera’s plot, which revolved around (and sometimes landed right on) a particular sex act, and whose, er, climax involved pornographic photos visible to the audience, clearly has not lost its power to shock.

Nor had it lost its power to move more tender emotions, to satirize human behavior at all levels of society, to invoke the look and feel of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘70s, and to display the versatility and virtuosity of its four-member cast (playing 17 roles) and its 14-player orchestra.

Odyssey Opera’s month-long “British Invasion” festival often found itself exploring the winding lanes of British humor, from the humanely Shakespearean satire of Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love to the dotty Victorian fantasy of Arthur Sullivan’s The Zoo.

Powder Her Face is closing out the series on a savage, contemporary note, taking as its “text” the career of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, the real-life socialite whose affairs with show-business and high-born celebrities became the stuff of legend, culminating in a divorce where photographic evidence of the Duchess in action gripped the public’s imagination, while leaving little to it.

This extravagant subject matter prompted Adès to make extravagant demands on singers and players, the former leaping impossibly high and dropping impossibly low, the latter manipulating their instruments to produce a vast assortment of squawks, grunts, wails, and thumps, supplemented by an equally extravagant 40-piece percussion battery.

The cockeyed tango that set the mood at the opening was the nearest thing to conventional music heard all evening. The composer’s psychological sense was unerring; the future Duchess’s moment of triumph as the Duke slid the engagement ring on her finger, for example, elicited a crescendo of dissonant sneers in the reeds.

In fact, the orchestra’s role, as vividly realized by Rose and his players, went beyond accompaniment to become another character in the opera, a sort of Greek chorus to the outrageous action on stage.

The only cast member not singing multiple roles was soprano Patricia Schuman as the Duchess, who glided through the action all evening in a white peignoir with a white fur collar.  With more than enough vocal power to sock her role across, Schuman somehow maintained an aristocratic bearing throughout, even while satisfying the libretto’s frequent and varied demands for simulated oral sex.

If Schuman’s performance was overall more scary than alluring, it was mostly because Adès wrote it that way.  She was convincing as the catalyst of the drama.

The strong-voiced bass-baritone Ben Wager was a worthy male antagonist in various roles: the Duke of course, but also the Hotel Manager whose scenes with the Duchess bookend the opera, the stentorian Judge in divorce court, and two smaller parts.


The “lower orders” were well represented by tenor Daniel Norman and soprano Amanda Hall in their scenes as a hotel’s Electrician and Maid, and as an elderly pair of Rubberneckers outside the divorce court. Norman’s drag impersonation of the Duchess (before the real character even appears onstage) sent Hall into peals of soprano laughter.

These singers got a social upgrade as a Lounge Lizard and a Confidante attending a debutante ball, with Norman’s pleasing tenor showing to advantage in a song-and-soft-shoe number.  Hall displayed her own brand of aristocratic sensuality as the Duke’s Mistress, and played the Society Journalist who interviews the Duchess decked out as Gloria Steinem, long hair, aviator glasses and all.

Hall was also the star vocal acrobat of the evening, with several of her roles calling for her to rocket off into the coloratura ionosphere at a moment’s notice, which she did with verve and remarkable accuracy.

One would have forgiven this production if it had relied on the audience’s suspension of disbelief and allowed the singers to change characters simply by switching a hat or other accessory. But Amanda Mujica’s costumes and Rachel Padula Shufelt’s hair and makeup design, besides being fun excursions into the styles of the different decades, made the singers virtually unrecognizable from one role to the next.

One can only imagine the scene backstage as singer Wager was transformed from tan-suited, gray-haired Hotel Manager to tuxedoed, youthful Duke in a matter of seconds.

Still more arresting visuals sprang from the imagination of Nic Muni, whose billing as “stage director and scenic designer” placed him squarely in charge of the mis en scène. The single set had the pale, brocaded walls of a posh London hotel room, on which Muni projected images to set other scenes (ballroom, modern apartment, courtroom) or photo montages of ‘50s celebrities, some of whom were the Duchess’s lovers (David Niven yes, Albert Einstein probably not).

Muni managed the action well onstage, keeping the sexy bits discreetly shielded yet plenty evocative. Some strong effects by lighting designer Linda O’Brien, such as harsh side lighting for the accused Duchess or an ominous shaft of light streaming through a door near the opera’s end, added yet another psychological dimension to the performance.

A dimension that was often missing, unfortunately, was comprehension of Philip Hensher’s sardonic libretto. The “no supertitles” policy of this festival of English music in English has led to admirably direct, unfiltered experiences in other productions, but here the score’s vocal gymnastics and operatic tessitura often defeated the evident efforts of the cast to project the words–at least, so it seemed to a listener seated a third of the way back on the side. There were some good laughs in this show, but one suspected many more were being left at the footlights.

But that was the only reservation about what was otherwise a fitting climax to Odyssey Opera’s enterprising festival.

Powder Her Face will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Fridayand Saturday.  odysseyopera.org; 617-585-1200.

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