Opera Philadelphia Ends Successful Season with 'Powder Her Face'

Patricia Schuman as the Duchess of Argyll in Opera Philadelphia's Powder Her Face
Patricia Schuman as the Duchess of Argyll in 'Powder Her Face'

The life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll is still a richly scandalous story, a tale of a wealthy, married royal (to the future Duke of Argyll) whose Polaroid photos surfaced showing her wearing only pearls while performing sex acts on men who weren’t her husband. Composer Thomas Adès and writer Philip Hensher took the bold step then when they crafted an opera around the provocative story of “the Dirty Duchess” that rocked Britain’s aristocracy. That composition, Powder Her Face just ended it run as part of the Opera Philadelphia Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman Theater.

Starring renowned soprano Patricia Schuman as the aloof yet alluring Duchess of Argyll, Powder Her Face was a showcase, first, for Adès’ atonal mix of musical styles. It was a modernist operatic backdrop that mixed-and-matched the eerily elegant influence of classicists Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky with that of Kurt Weill’s carnival cabaret with just a hint of Astor Piazzolla’s brand of tango in the score’s use of accordion.

Maestro Corrado Rovaris led the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra to perfection. The music of Powder Her Face was a stately, sonic free-for-all. This lively soundscape allowed its players to sink their teeth into the richly absurd characterizations rather than, say, the norm of proper operatic vocalizing. There is a silliness that abounds in the manic trilling of cast member’s singing styles, along with the sadness of watching the great once-wealthy woman break down into poverty after her scandal was announced in the British press in 1963.

The entire show was wildly theatrical and expressionistic. From the staging of a grand, high-ceilinged apartment (which doubles as a courtroom and the sex salon where her assignations took place) filled with designer accoutrements, to the comic nature of her accusers, Powder Her Face, made a farce of the nouveau-riche end of an era.

Most particularly though, you can hear that fall in the voice of the Duchess as sung by Schuman: flighty, entitled highs brought down to minor sorrowful key changes that mirror the disgust of those who saw her as a laughing stock and a monster. “She is a beast to an exceptional degree. She is a Don Juan among women,” sings the divorce proceeding’s judge, played by bass Opera Philadelphia Company member, Ben Wager. “She is insatiable, unnatural and altogether fairly appalling” (Wager, along with tenor Christopher Tiesi and soprano Ashley Emerson, perform several roles). We hear the Duchess’ descent with every passing chord, a brutal yet stunningly beautiful disgrace.

Photo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2013