Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Take a Powder

February 18, 2013


l-r: Nili Riemer, Allison Cook, and Kaneza Schaal in Powder Her Face Photo: Carol Rosegg/NYCO 2013
If you want to know what keeping up appearances means in the world of opera, New York City Opera is serving up a prime example right now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of its many recent homes away from homelessness since leaving Lincoln Center. You’d never guess the troubles that have plagued this company in recent seasons by the look of the opening production of their 2013 season, a new staging of Thomas Adés’ Powder Her Face. Rapidly approaching its 20th anniversary, Adés’ chamber opera has proven to have remarkable legs and this time around those legs have some amazing bulging calves and meaty thighs. Not to mention all the bubble butts, washboard abs and impressive male genitalia on display in Jay Scheib’s sharp, fever-dream staging of Britain’s Duchess of Argyll affair. The Duchess, sung by an assured Allison Cook, finds herself unraveling in  impoverished anonymity at the opening of the piece, and her recollection of how she got there is presented as a half-remembered hallucination with clever augmentations of events in the libretto. The Duchess and her maid, the equally captivating Nili Riemer, go on a cocaine binge in the bathroom of the Duchess’ hotel suite at one point, and the line between the suite’s interiors and the outside of some imaginary forest blend and shift constantly throughout the show. And then there are those two-dozen completely nude male lovers that wander into the penultimate scene of Act I to lounge, do head stands, handle fruit, and read newspapers as the oblivious Duchess goes about seducing the hotel’s waiter, a part sung with clear even tone by William Ferguson.

Allison Cook and friends in Powder Her Face Photo: Carol Rosegg/NYCO 2013
Ferguson is a good sport here, appearing in the all-together, as well, at moments and making the most of frisky undressing and groping with another waiter, Jon Morris, in one of two non-singing servant roles in this staging. The intention, of course, is to demonstrate how the once scandalous sexual behavior of the Duchess has become commonplace in the contemporary world that has forgotten all about her late in her life. The staging also makes much of live video projected onto the large blank moving walls of the set, allowing the audience to see action in multiple rooms onstage simultaneously while providing juxtapositions of scenes that are simultaneously taking place in contrasting exposed or enclosed settings. It all works splendidly and does great service to Adés score, which is lightly peppered with references to popular 20th Century musical genres. Instead of treating the work as some period piece or survey of the recent past, Scheib and his team deliver something that feels like it is happening in the moment in a slightly crazed, intensely psychological way. Adés’ score likewise sounds urgent and all of one piece as opposed to some musical pastiche. Of course, one of the reasons Powder Her Face continues to be so attractive is the relative economy of the forces involved. But conductor Jonathan Stockhammer manages to elicit much bigger sound than one might expect from the size of the chamber ensemble in the pit.

Of course, whether or not this kind of work will be the kind of thing that brings New York City Opera back to a bigger existence in a more permanent home remains to be seen. But even not, the artistic values on display suggest the company has plenty more to say, and one hopes they continue to find the fortunes to do so. Powder Her Face continues for two more performances at BAM this week.


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