Review: City Opera's Powder Her Face Lays Bare British Sex Scandal

Email a Friend

Everything in the world is about sex – so said Oscar Wilde – except sex. Sex is about power.

Is there a better summation of the Thomas Ades/PhilipHensher opera Powder Her Face? The aphorism is probably a better nutshell than the opera deserved in its grand-opera re-entry into New York, having been often presented as a chamber piece since its 1995 London premiere. But on Friday, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera House was littered with two-dozen fully naked men lounging about, representing the many lovers of the notoriously randy Duchess of Argyll.

This visually busy Jay Scheib production – the season opener for New York City Opera – addressed many of the problems in this woozy, dreamy portrayal of a beautiful society woman who married a duke but created scandal with her sexual proclivities. The music mocks its main character so ceaselessly as to be Victorian in its view toward sex – even though it was premiered around the same time British theater breezily celebrated Internet hookups in the popular Patrick Marber play “Closer.”

But in the final act of this production, the Duchess emerged disgraced but not (as sometimes happens in this opera) a mere object of ridicule. Turning the tide of audience sympathy is directorial feat that almost righted the power plays laden on a woman who probably did little more than her male counterparts routinely got away with – and was perhaps driven by untreated mental illness as well.

The opera itself is an impressive though cold confluence of cultural touchstones, starting with the great Joseph Losey film “The Servant” – as the aging duchess’s maid becomes unapologetically contemptuous. Then comes a series of flashbacks from her seductions to her divorce, with music that draws on Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress but mostly sounds like disassembled, Berlin-era Kurt Weill, a free-floating, surreal soup of heterogeneous non-sequiturs. Scenes have no typical shape or tension – a point of novelty and marvel at first hearing.

But when now presented as grand opera, the piece's stature shrinks, seeming like a misplaced fringe festival item, irreverent for the sake of it – and not earnest about anything. The curse of unconventional sexual appetites, gender inequality, the responsibility of public life are all touched upon but never much explored, and not because the opera is moving too quickly. However inventive Ades's score, it's not exactly vigorous, requiring much directorial invention to keep some scenes from seeming endless.

Photo: Nili Riemer and Matt Boehler in Powder Her Face (©Carol_Rosegg)

Marsha Ginsberg's Act II set design – indoor furniture scattered in a bare outdoor woods - intelligently reflected the duchess's ruined life. Onstage video cameras gave closeups of stage activity (some of it erotic) projected in enlarged high-def form onto a scrim, though no such technology was needed for the aforementioned army of naked men.

Oh yes, there were singers. Allison Cook’s portrayal of the duchess had a vocal confidence not always heard in new-ish operas and was theatrically alluring – she resembled a 1960s Vivien Leigh – while virtuosic coloratura soprano Nili Riemer portrayed the maid as a malevolent version of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Conductor Jonathan Stockhammer deserves huge credit for molding the sprawling score. And whoever was in charge of recruiting the naked guys probably had the most interesting operatic job in New York.