Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face"

by Barry Drogin

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Three performances of Thomas Ades "Powder Her Face" came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The New York Times caught Tuesday (and is reviewed in Thursday's edition), I saw Thursday (along with Leighton Kerner, who's sure to pen something for the Village Voice next week), and you can catch Saturday if you so desire (and can afford the price). Though billed as "semi-staged," this is really a full-production of a chamber opera, the advertising protecting BAM from those who might have been angry at the steep prices ($20-65), and that the orchestra is visible (which works just fine).

With a libretto by novelist Philip Hensher (who gets small billing, isn't mentioned by reviews, is quoted twice in the program notes but doesn't get a bio(!)), "Powder Her Face," composed when the composer was in his early twenties, is reflective of musical and theatre history while obviously stretching the musical legs of a composer finding his voice. First and foremost, the plot is a mirror of "The Marriage of Figaro," but with attention moved to the Countess (here, the Dutchess) and her maid (who gets the most interesting arias). Ades also reflects on the two Berg operas, on Weill, and on music of the thirties (I even heard a snippet of Stravinsky's "The Rakes Progress"), but these homages are all constrained to the first act, which, in its eclecticism, is Ades experimenting musically. As there are only four singers, he (with the cooperation of his librettist) concentrates well on pacing the singers' responsibilities, and trying out duets and trios, and a lyrical vocal line in the first act.

The conceit of the first act is laughter, and the orchestra develops a language that evokes the varied sound of it. In the second act, all of the homage is swept away, and we are left only with the laughter music, which is actually Ades own musical voice. I think Ades figures that if anyone can't stand it hidden in the first act, they'll leave during intermission.

The Dutchess is a kind of mirror Blanche DuBois, rich, spoiled, prejudiced, defined by her sex and her class. Her fame comes not from being rich, or even from sleeping with the servants, but from performing fellatio on them, which was scandalous perversion in 1955. Even in 1995, the young Ades would have found creating an opera around blowjobs to be naughty and titillating, and he delivers a humming fellatio aria (recipient's back to the audience and lights dimmed) that he challenges reviewers to mention. In this post-Lewinsky and gay-conscious world, there is no shock left to mine.

Despite all the laughter (the maid gets many forms), the use of drag and falsetto, the playful quotes and homages, even the straight-out 30's song (the program annotator misclassifies it as Cole Porter on drugs, but I fear he is the drug taker), the piece doesn't amuse that much --- comedy is hard, and the piece is too sympathetic to its central character. I fear that, based on the first act, Covent Garden will be disappointed when Ades gives them a piece too much like the second act, but we will see. John Corigliano was in the audience, and he managed to pastiche the Met audience into not realizing what he was up to.

The singers and the orchestra weren't particularly up to the music's demands, the Judge aria in particular, jumping from very low bass to falsetto being fiendishly difficult and a struggle. Praise to our friend William Schimmel, accordionist extraordinaire, for his assistance in sometime prominent roles. For a piece that was merely intended as a small attention-getting festival piece, the world's desparate hype has burdened "Powder Her Face" with more than it can deliver. I enjoyed it, but I'll expect better next time.

An addendum to my previous posting: I have to remind myself of why I dislike BAM --- the audience. It is possible that, in front of a different audience, "Powder Her Face" is perceived as very funny and the audience laughs throughout. The particular presentation worked against this:
1. The use of supertitles
2. The large size of the house
3. The hype, which stressed Ades, not that the piece was funny
4. The two pages of program notes
5. The synopsis in the program
All of these will work against allowing an audience to laugh. It is possible that, when first presented in England, the audience was charmed and very responsive. I certainly enjoyed the first act, but only laughed out loud a few times. Given a better orchestra, better singers, a more intimate setting and no supertitles, I might have really enjoyed the piece.

Listen to excerpts from "Powder Her Face" and to other music of Thomas Ades at Amazon.com.

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Last Updated: April 26, 2009