City Opera’s production of Thomas Adès’s blue and boozy Powder Her Face (at BAM through February 23) is a bit… risque. Take for example the moment in the first half when two dozen men emerge in the bedchamber of the famously promiscuous Duchess Margaret Campbell (a stellar Allison Cook): roughly 24 butt-naked men pile like clowns out of every door, stage wing, and piece of furniture until they crowd the stage; director Jay Scheib wanted to fit more, but there’s no more space. As these men mill about, Campbell seduces a waiter and performs fellatio on him, hitting a (muted) high note as she does so. Throughout the opera, there’s more coitus, lovers in bed before and after—more than you usually see at the opera house, at least.
You could say it’s progressive, with a rough modern score to match its rough modern story, mixing mid-20th-century pop with swells of silver-screen dramatic music and modern atonality; there are slide whistles and accordions. Powder Her Face is the story of a modern woman whose life argues for the outmodedness of marriage and English morality, a scoffing at the bourgeoisie. At the same time, the opera lets her also mourn for an old-fashioned way of life: parties, hosting, sociability, casual racism. Powder ultimately portrays the comeuppance of the ruling class; nowadays it’s the servants who have all the fun—who snort all the coke, who strip off their clothes. (The first notes are sung by a maid jumping on a bed.) Librettist Philip Hensher takes pity on Campbell, finding some tragedy in her privilege and sexuality gone sour and sad—the loneliness of an aged person who was never judged on her character. “The time to vacate always comes,” a hotel manager sings. Money runs out, beauty fades, and history forgets.
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