Arts & Events

POWDER HER FACE: A Farrago of Bad Taste

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 12, 2016 - 04:58:00 PM

Tabloid journalism turned into a raunchy, sensationalist opera is what Thomas Adès’s 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face is all about. West Edge Opera, in offering the first local staged production of Powder Her Face, has indulged in over-the-top sensationalism for its own sake. I can’t imagine a more blatantly raunchy, pornographic production of this – or for that matter any – opera. As staged by director Elkhanah Pulitzer, Powder Her Face is a farrago of bad taste.  

Thomas Adès, a British composer who was 24-years-old in 1995, was commissioned in 1994 by London’s Alameida Theatre to write an opera. Adès met frequently with his friend Phillip Hensher, and they shared an obsessive fascination with Alban Berg’s opera Lulu and Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. Hensher, who became the librettist for the opera Adès composed, suggested that the scandalous 1963 divorce case of the Duchess of Argyll would make a terrific subject for an opera. As Hensher observes in program notes for West Edge Opera’s production of Powder Her Face, “1960s sex-and-Polaroids scandal centering on an allegedly sex-crazed duchess seemed perfect.” 

Perfect for what? Toward what artistic and social end? These are questions that must be raised about West Edge Opera’s over-indulgence in sensationalism in this production of Powder Her Face. Interestingly, several audience members I spoke with at the Thursday, August 12 performance of this opera at West Oakland’s abandoned train station told me that the Berkeley Symphony’s concert version of Powder Her Face four or five years ago brought out the dazzling inventiveness of Adès’s musical score far better than this West Edge Opera’s over-the-top staging of Powder Her Face. I can well believe this. When nothing is left to the imagination, and every sex-act is thrown in your face --and there are very many sex-acts of diverse pornographic varieties in this production – the audience may not be able to appreciate the music for its own sake. Conductor Mary Chun did her best to offer a respectable rendition of the Adès score, but Elkhanah Pulitzer’s over-indulgent staging of Powder Her Face consistently overwhelmed the music itself. Not that I am particularly fond of Adès’s score. Especially in the entire first Act, the vocal score consists largely of squeals, screeches, grunts and yowls. The orchestral score isn’t much better: it offers oom pah pah belches and farts galore, not to mention this opera’s most notorious moment, an act of fellatio accompanied by orchestral huffing and puffing, which reminded me that a 1960s euphemism for a blow-job was a ‘huffer’. When the Duchess brought the blow-job to completion, the huffing and puffing orchestra paused for an instant, and the Duchess sputtered and gagged, suggesting she might be on the verge of throwing up. Actually, this bit of operatic porn was immediately followed by a brief, somewhat poignant orchestral moment of what might be termed post-fellatio sadness, itself an ironic take on post-coital sadness. This was one of the few musical moments I enjoyed in Act I of Powder Her Face. 

Vocally, soprano Laura Bohn was given this opera’s best music to sing, and Bohn handled it admirably. Especially late in Act II, when the Duchess’s society-life is a thing of the past, Laura Bohn’s singing and acting made the Duchess almost likeable, and at least pitiable. In this respect, the Duchess reminds me of Blanche Dubois in André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire, (another of my least favorite operas). Soprano Emma McNairy, who was so sensational in last year’s West Edge Opera production of Berg’s Lulu, now sang the role of The Maid, a sycophantic confidante of the Duchess, and a journalist. As The Maid, Emma McNairy was mostly given only squeals and screeches to sing. Let us just say that Emma McNairy can squeal and screech with the best of them. The Maid is a total airhead, and her character is just as sex-crazed as the Duchess. The Maid gets it on with anyone and everyone in this opera. She has an explicit lesbian relationship with the Duchess, takes on most of the males who appear in the opera, and participates in a 3-way orgy with the Duchess and Duke, which climaxes, quite explicitly, when The Maid inserts a wine-bottle into the anus of the Duke, who punctuates his orgasm with a loud grunt. 

Incidentally, with Emma McNairy now playing a sex-crazed Maid just a year after she played the sex-crazed Lulu in Berg’s opera, some comparisons of Powder Her Face and Lulu are in order. The characters in Berg’s Lulu have quite a bit of mystery and ambiguity about them, and Lulu, especially, has noteworthy integrity of a very independent sort. In Powder Her Face, by contrast, none of the characters has the slightest mystery or ambiguity. They are cartoonish to the max. And only in the final fading moments of this opera, when the Duchess begs for someone to hold her and treat her kindly, does the Duchess’s character take on a slight glimmer of integrity, albeit of a pitiable sort. Likewise, musically speaking, Berg’s Lulu is a masterpiece of twelve-tone construction and angular lyricism while Adès’s Powder Her Face offers only an acerbic pastiche of tangos, popular love songs, jazzy saxophones, and assorted squeals, screeches, grunts and farts. 

Tenor Jonathan Blalock sang various minor parts, performing them with panache, and baritone Hadleigh Adams sang the Duke, as well as singing the hotel manager and the judge in the divorce case. Hadleigh Adams performed with vocal elegance and theatrical vigor in what must be a demanding and rather unpleasant role as the Duke. Finally, a word must be said about the lighting provided by Ray Oppenheimer. It was generally lurid, and usually overly bright. Particularly objectionable was a lime-green spotlight on Emma McNairy’s scantily clad derrière as she bent over and virtually mooned the audience in Act I. Furthermore, whenever the lighting was overly bright, the supertitles became faint and blurred. This happened in West Edge Opera’s recent production of The Cunning Little Vixen as well as here in Powder Her Face. West Edge Opera’s General Director Mark Streshinsky may be in love with Oakland’s abandoned train station as a venue for opera, but in none of the recent productions there has he solved the simple issue of making the supertitles readable. All in all, this West Edge Opera production of Powder Her Face struck me as one of the least enjoyable experiences I have ever had in an opera.