I've been waiting my entire career to say this with clear conscience: This opera blows. For you see, the subject of this chamber opera by English composer Thomas Adès is the notorious Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (1912-93), who, after a seedy divorce trial in 1963 that was splashed across every newspaper in England, was known forever after for her voracious sexual appetite. She was particularly fond of fellatio. The opera rubs our faces in it, becoming as sensational for the musical setting of one such dalliance between Duchess and room service waiter as for anything else it offers. Written in 1995, Adès's first opera is as scandalous as Strauss's Salome (1905) was for its time, except it pales in musical worth, and that's saying a mouthful.
With an extremely literate libretto by English novelist Philip Hensher, Face is a stream-of-consciousness retelling of the Duchess's rise and fall, set in the squalid hotel room of her mind in the final days of her life. In 1995, when this piece premiered, Adès was the hot young thing in music, certainly in England, renowned for his virtuosic piano playing and some minor orchestral work. Face made him.
Adès knows his way around an orchestration, no question about that, for the percussive, non-electronic sounds he gets out of a small band are an earful. Weird aural effects swirl from the pit -- was that a penny whistle? -- and he loves high vocal lines and rough rhythms. Rhythm is very much a part of Adès's impressive vocabulary, like elemental Stravinsky, but it's Benjamin Britten whose distinctive voice Adès's resembles, and, I think, admires. Like Britten, it's not always pleasant to listen to, even with its teasing little hints of Piazzolla-like tangos and riffs from Kurt Weill, for after a while it all sounds alike. There's no difference, music-wise, between healthy and sick, sane and dotty. The Judge's condemnation, with different timbre and orchestration, could very well be the Maid's monologue about the Duchess's extramarital affairs. Although there are neat little sounds throughout that prick up your ears, the sameness mushes together and becomes tiresome.
Even so, however, maestro and Opera Vista's artistic director Viswa Subbaraman pulled out all the stops for this work, and the four singers, who, except for the Duchess, double and triple up as other characters, were exceptionally good. This is terribly complicated music -- what with its fishing reels and bowls of water and other effects -- but Subbaraman made it all sound easy, drawing out the score with a lover's rapt attention. The singers made the vocal gymnastics sound easy, too. Cassandra Black was an imperious Duchess, a poor little rich girl transformed by sex into a sadder little rich girl. Although Hensher might see her as akin to Tennessee Williams's faded Blanche DuBois, there's a lot more wacky Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. She's not easy to like, which is a major problem with the opera, since there's no one to root for. Demented or not -- Campbell's insatiable addiction has been traced to a dramatic near-death tumble down an elevator shaft in 1943 -- she's as unpleasant at the start as she is at her fall. Benjamin Robinson (The Electrician), Kelly Waguespack (The Maid) and Kyle Albertson (The Hotel Manager) maneuver through Adès's jagged vocals like the complete pros they are, acting with great panache.
Especially fine is the Brecht-like staging by director Sandra Bernhard amid a ravaged beauty of a set (uncredited) that does indeed look like the inside of the Duchess's troubled mind. Carrie Calvins's expressionistic lighting adds an impressive layer to the growing psychological darkness. What doesn't work so well is the projection of the titles, explanatory and dialogue, upon the background drapery, where they are mostly swallowed up in the swags and, hence, unreadable. The period photos come off best with this treatment, looking as if they were dim remembrances, which they are.
I know you're wondering: What about that scene? How in the hell do they stage that? It's still a shocker, how could it not be, seeing as the Duchess performs her most favored sex act singing all the while. Talk about room service. But it's fairly discreet, staged behind a pulled curtain and shadowy. We know exactly what's happening, as her labored breathing and even her spitting out is dutifully registered in the music.
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Like the Duchess herself, Powder Her Face is famous for being famous. Had the creators been more interested in character and less intent on being the first to musicalize a blow job -- which is a feat in itself, you have to admit -- the opera would be a lot better. You know after a while, watching others have sex, like porn, is usually tedious. This opera gets off, but, unfortunately, never really takes off.
In case you're wondering. Face isn't the first time fellatio goes all full-frontal onstage. That dubious premiere occurred in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Manon (1974), where, in Act III, scene II, the sadistic jailer forces Manon onto her knees in front of him. She is brutalized in hopes of pardon, but her pleas are laughed at when the jailer casts her aside when he's done. Even though everybody keeps their clothes on, the sex act, right out there center stage, is degrading, brutal and lurid in the extreme. It shocks us because adults have suddenly barged into the pink and froufrou world of toe dancing and sugarplums. Thanks to Sir Kenneth, ballet lost its virginity.
See for yourself the scandalous duchess and her easy ways in her only remaining performance from Opera Vista tonight at 8 p.m. in Zilkha Hall at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Order tickets online at www.thehobbycenter.org or call 713-315-2525.