Thomas Adès’ 1995 opera Powder Her Face ends with the sounds of a fishing reel being wound and unwound. After the hedonistic bombast of the operas preceding two acts this creepy, creaky silence was devastating. The pairing of excess and nothingness, epitomized in this crucial moment in the drama, is what makes Adès’ first opera a theatrical success and a bold opening for New York City Opera’s 2013 season.
The true story of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose excessive lifestyle and brazen, ahead-of-her-time sexuality reached a climax in a very public divorce in 1963, is exalted into a Greek tragedy by librettist Philip Hensher. As is the case with tragic heroes and heroines, the Duchess is destroyed, at least partially, by her fatal flaw; an insatiable greed for money, power and sex brings her infamy and notoriety, but in the end, it is not enough to fill the echoing hollow within.
The Duchess is both self-destructive and a victim of society. Jay Scheib’s production brings out the double standard of infidelity with equal parts subtlety and shock. An onstage camerawoman projects the stage action onto large screens, highlighting the voyeurism of the Duchess trial, when dozens of incriminating polaroids were presented as evidence of her infidelity. When her twenty-five suitors flooded the stage, sporting terrific costumes by Ma Nature, the audience reacted with a babble of laughter that quickly crescendoed into a flood of uncomfortable laughter. Meanwhile, the very graphic image of the Duke mounting the maid, went without comment. The Duchess’ infidelity played large and with vulgarity, is shocking and disturbing while her husband’s infidelity is tolerated. The double standard that ruined the Duchess’ public image then still thrives beneath the surface of today’s enlightened, post-sexism society.
The stylistic variety of Adès score is the ideal counterpoint to Hensher’s beautifully crafted libretto. Salty tangoes, ironic waltzes in the tradition of Kurt Weill, and a slimy lounge song, stretched and distorted like Dali’s clocks, provide humor to contrast with the nakedly human moments, such as the trial and Duchess’s defense at the beginning of Act II and the Duchess’s mad scene which closes the opera.
The mezzo-soprano Allison Cook molded and distorted her voice to fit the frigidity and vacuity of the Duchess. It wasn’t until the Duchess lost everything – her lovers, her fortune, her home – that we finally see and hear her humanity. Cook shed the Duchess’s façade, singing with abandon and a vulnerability that came too late to save her from self-destruction. It was one of those moments where, in the audience’s silence, you can hear collective devastation.
The rest of the characters – the Maid, the Electrician, and the Hotel Manager – embodied different roles throughout the opera with the Duchess as a center of gravity. Nili Reimer as the Maid and all her reincarnations was a quirky, sexy foil to the Duchess’s noble extremes. Adès seems to love high-flying coloratura that thwarts any attempts at decent diction, but Reimer overcame that obstacle and articulated like a master without ever sounding labored. Tenor Will Ferguson’s Peter Pears-esque voice, monochrome yet somehow warm and penetrating, brought a crucial anonymity to the various roles he portrayed as the Electrician. We saw and heard him as unidentifiable and unmemorable just as the Duchess, lost in her aristocratic world, would have. Lastly, Matt Boehler’s sonorous and deep bass sounded lecherous and comical as the Duke, oppressive as the Judge, and unforgiving as the Hotel Manager who evicts the Duchess and refuses her final sexual advance.