Onstage and off, the pleasures of sex have always played a major role in opera. While the lurid love lives of superstar divas kept the gossips busy, the even more lurid lives of the characters they embodied—from Monteverdi’s Poppaea to Berg’s Lulu—kept audiences riveted to their seats. Presumably, the contemporary British composer Thomas Adès and his librettist, Philip Hensher had this tradition in mind when they cooked up their chatter-causing 1995 chamber opera, Powder Her Face, currently receiving its first full production locally, as part of New York City Opera’s BAM season, conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer and staged by Obie-winning director Jay Scheib.
Though full of eyebrow-raising sex talk and sexual events, including what must surely rank as the only onstage act of vocalized fellatio in musical-theater history, Powder Her Face turns out to be, if you will pardon the expression, a curiously flaccid work. Hensher’s libretto, limply structured and uncertain in tone, is loosely inspired by the notorious life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (1912-1993), the so-called “dirty duchess” whose two divorces and numerous, well-documented extramarital affairs made her, for decades, a darling of Britain’s tabloids.
The opera shifts hazily back and forth in time, utilizing an awkward conceit: Employees at the hotel where an unnamed duchess (Allison Cook) has been spending her impoverished later years become figures from or commentators on her earlier life. Its view of its heroine veers with seeming randomness from sympathy to snide contempt. Adès’s score, often imaginatively textured but rarely compelling, illustrates these ungainly shifts of time, place, and attitude with a wide range of musical tactics, including bursts of yelping staccato coloratura for the duchess’s maid (Nili Riemer) that prefigure the strings of hiccuping high notes he provided for Ariel in his later opera, The Tempest, which premiered at the Met last fall.
Though impressively resourceful, Adès’s music, like the libretto, never coalesces to convey any overall purpose, as if Adès and Hensher had wanted to write an opera, had seized on the recently deceased Duchess of Argyll’s life as a suitably “hot” topic, and had then simply plowed ahead without much thought over what the addition of topic to form would equal. Evocations of predecessor works abound: A lot of the vocal writing suggests Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire; a final solo for the Duchess recalls the pensive closing scene of Strauss’s Capriccio; a late burst of tango suggesting that the score has been hijacked in its last moments by Ástor Piazzolla. The ultimate effect is not tragic, satiric, or shocking, but strangely desultory.
The opera’s lack of definition inevitably provokes a vagueness of response, making it a work to chat about over drinks rather than one to cherish. The haziness leaves Powder Her Face‘s central character a blur—rather a disservice to the remarkable woman on whose startling life it’s ostensibly based. Zachary Woolfe, previewing the opera in a feature for The New York Times, erroneously referred to the historical Duchess of Argyll as “fame- and money-hungry,” which is quite the opposite of the truth. Ethel Margaret Whigham was born into a world of wealth and society-page glamor. Her father was a Scottish millionaire, chairman of the Celanese Corporation; she arrived in adulthood as “Debutante of the Year.” Her wedding at age 21, to an American named Charles Sweeny (for whom she had jilted an earl), drew such crowds that it blocked traffic in Knightsbridge for several hours.
“They wrote songs about me,” the opera’s duchess declares, and her real-life counterpart’s celebrity did in fact extend to one mention in a popular “list” song: P.G. Wodehouse, emending Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” for the first London production of Anything Goes, rhymed “Mrs. Sweeny” with “Mussolini.” Till 1943, a well-publicized series of alleged romantic flings kept her in the gossip columns. Then came a news-making tragic accident, unmentioned in the opera: her near-fatal fall down an elevator shaft in 1943. (Even this had a glamorous setting; it occurred while she was leaving a chiropodist’s office on Bond Street.)
The fall seems to have jarred loose Mrs. Sweeny’s moral sense. She and Sweeny divorced in 1947; she married Argyll in 1951. It was in those years that her already healthy libido moved into the excessive phase that led the Duke, in 1963, to file for divorce. The vast number of affairs alleged in his suit, some with photographs as evidence (including one of the duchess fellating an unidentified man variously alleged to have been a movie star and a cabinet minister), supplied the scandal-sheet fodder that transformed her from “debutante of the year” into “the dirty duchess.”
The ex-Duchess of Argyll outlived her scandalous second divorce to remain, at least in her own mind, a quintessential image of bygone elegance and class privilege, flickeringly in the public eye, for the next three decades. She published a memoir and, less probably, a book purporting to instruct the young in beauty secrets and social graces. She saw no irony in her bemoaning, when she granted a rare interview in her old age, the contemporary decline in manners.
City Opera’s production animated Adès’s quirky work in ways that displayed its fine qualities without concealing its patent limitations. Stockhammer’s orchestra illuminated the score’s multitude of details with passionate, nuanced exactitude. Riemer handled her difficult, ultimately unrewarding vocal tasks with aplomb. She and tenor William Ferguson (as a hotel electrician who, like the Duchess’s maid, embodies a variety of roles) managed to sing lustrously even while bouncing or rolling on a variety of beds. Baritone Matt Boehler, as the hotel manager and other authority figures, sang less attractively but imbued his multiple roles with an even stronger acting presence. Cook invested the opera’s strangely wan portrait of the duchess with elegant stature, both musically and physically, seizing the work’s one genuinely dramatic passage (the post-divorce aria, “So that is all”) with a fervor that made you wish the whole thing had been that rich.
Scheib’s staging, recalling repeated-motion works by Richard Foreman and others, populated Marsha Ginsberg’s panoramic set (painted an eerie institutional green) with additional silent figures, including the gymnast Jon Morris as a mute and highly flexible waiter. At one point, a covey of naked men emerged from all directions, a visual summation of the duchess’s promiscuity. But their seemingly aimless drift across the stage only reinforced the opera’s overall aimlessness. The wide range of visual tactics Scheib employed included film sequences and live-action video; he keyed the characters’ gestures, sharply and sensitively, to shifts in the music. The production looked, and felt, like a strong overall statement; only the underlying work’s weakness made the statement lack weight.