Long Beach Opera warns those entering the Carpenter Performing Arts Center for its new production of Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face" that what follows will not be appropriate for children. The work, written in 1995 by a preternaturally gifted British composer, then 24, includes the most graphic sex scene in mainstream opera. But what is ultimately shocking about this work is not that--an adolescent prank by a young composer--but all the rest. "Powder Her Face" is an indictment of the old by the young. And it is utterly brilliant, which is the real reason you don't want your kids there.
Ades, and his librettist, Philip Hensher, take as their target Margaret Whigham, who in her second marriage became the duchess of Argyll. Her divorce from the duke in 1963 became delicious London scandal when the judge handed down a long verdict denouncing her "debased sexual appetite." Rich, famous, beautiful, arrogant, bigoted, she remained defiant to the end, continuing to live in the high style that made her famous until her money ran out. In 1990, at 78, she was thrown out of her hotel suite and died destitute three years later.
"Powder Her Face" begins and ends in the hotel in 1990, her life revealed in flashbacks that show her marrying the Duke, seducing a waiter, accepting the verdict in divorce court, and being interviewed by a society journalist.
There is also a scene of the boorish Duke with his mistress. The opera is for a chamber ensemble of 15 instrumentalists and four singers. The Duchess is a dramatic soprano, the other singers (soprano, tenor and bass) each assume several roles, including a couple of cross-dressing ones for the tenor. Every character in the opera is thoroughly unlikable. And yet, thanks to Ades' astonishingly clever music, exceptionally realized in Long Beach on Sunday afternoon, one can spend two hours in their company, mesmerized.
Ades uses a vast, knowing range of reference to explore the self-centered Duchess. His music acknowledges Monteverdi, Strauss (Johann and Richard), Stravinsky, Messiaen, Weill, Piazzolla and Modernist West Coast percussionists, but not for purposes of pastiche. Instead, these styles and techniques are tools in his quirky hands, as if one or another of them (or some combination) might serve to uncover an unsuspected soul in the Duchess and to lead an audience to some sympathy for her. He comes close, which is another of the opera's shocks. In the end we have sympathy for her degradation and contumacy, if not for her.
Ever ready to surprise, Long Beach Opera ushers its audience not into the auditorium but onto the Carpenter stage, where the intimate show is staged for 250 seated in bleachers. The chamber orchestra, conducted by Neal Stulberg, is off to the right. The main element of Andrew Lieberman's set is a red-light-district hotel room, with bed erect, that is wheeled around the stage. The Duchess spends much of the opera in the bed, appearing almost embalmed when not performing. In the courtroom scene the Judge is wheeled in atop a high ladder and delivers the verdict in a long aria standing precariously on top of the set. A telling touch is having the Duchess make her final poignant exit slowly up the aisle of the vast, empty theater.
David Schweizer, who directed the company's outrageous "Indian Queen" three seasons ago, is merciless in what he asks of the four singers. Kaye Voyce dresses them with lively flair, while Geoff Korf's lights give them nowhere to hide. All of this makes Irena Sylya, a mature singer and not conventionally glamorous, all the more impressive. The theatrical daring of her impersonation of the Duchess, be it sexual writhing or withering imperiousness, is downright startling. As a singer, she has a tendency toward wobble, but she nonetheless commands the stage and the score.
Catherine Ireland (Maid, Confident Mistress, Rubbernecker, Reporter), James Schaffner (Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Rubbernecker) and Donald Sherrill (Hotel Manager, Duke, Judge) are the kind of fresh singers whose combination of musical skills and fearless acting ability encourage hope for opera's future. Ireland has sung small soprano roles at Los Angeles Opera; she is ready for starring ones.
Schaffner is a find--a facile tenor voice and fluent stage presence. Sherrill is an imposing baritone with a rich store of expression.
The instrumental writing is equally interesting. The excellent ensemble gets a little overshadowed, with such distracting stage business, but much of what makes this performance so convincing is Stulberg's impressive control over a very difficult score. It would be worth a second visit, I suspect, simply for the opportunity to pay more attention to the band.
"Powder Her Face" has had worldwide success and a recording. Being the first professional American company to stage it, Long Beach Opera once more makes history.
"Powder Her Face" continues Wednesday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m., $45 to $70, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. (562) 439-2580.