New York City Opera opens its spring 2013 season with a new production of Powder Her Face (1995), composed by Thomas Adès (b.1971) to a libretto by Philip Hensher (b. 1965). The world premiere of the opera, inspired by a sex scandal that rocked Britain in the early 60s, not only caused controversy, with its on-stage depiction of fellatio, but also propelled Adès to international recognition. Reviewing the premiere, The Sunday Times critic Paul Driver called Powder Her Face "one of the most striking new operas I have seen in years," and added, "From the tango of the overture to the tango of the close, one is on The Edge of one's seat trying to catch as much as possible of the prolific, fast-altering, vividly etched and instrumentally outrageous detail of a score which is boiling with life."
Conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer, whose artistry is as musically omnivorous as Adès' score, and directed by Jay Scheib, who is known for technologically rich theatrical innovation, the opera returns to BAM, where it was semi-staged at the Majestic (now Harvey) Theater as part of the 1998 Next Wave Festival.
Performances will take place February 15-23 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn): February 15, 21 and 23 at 7:30 P.M., and February 17 at 1:30 P.M. Tickets, $25-$250, can be purchased at 718.636.4100 or BAM.org. Please note: The production contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature; parental discretion is advised.
Powder Her Face centers around a series of Polaroids presented during the 1963 divorce case against Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. In the pictures, Campbell, dubbed the "Dirty Duchess" for the eighty-eight men with whom she allegedly had extramarital affairs, appeared nude, wearing only her signature pearl necklace. Some of the photos showed the Duchess performing oral sex on a man whose face was not visible. He was crowned "the headless man" by the tabloids, and his identity was the subject of much speculation.
Through the prism of Campbell's life story, Powder Her Face explores the intersection of gender, politics and power. Scheib has said, "Powder Her Face, with its high-speed turns, feels on the surface like a Don Giovanni-but this one's about a woman who does what she wants how and when she wants. Adès has singlehandedly resurrected the reputation of one Dirty Duchess, as dreamt by Jean Genet-and the music is absolutely thrilling."
With the exception of the "sterling tenor" (American Theater) William Ferguson, whose role as the Electrician follows many others with New York City Opera, the entire Powder Her Face cast and creative team-including Stockhammer and Scheib-is new to the Company. British mezzo-soprano Allison Cook, who recently garnered acclaim for her Teatro alla Scala debut in the world premiere of Luca Francesconi's Quartett (with subsequent performances at the Wiener Festwochen), will be introduced to American audiences as the Duchess. As the Maid, coloratura soprano Nili Riemer will make her Company debut, having won praise as the Queen of the Night in multiple European and American productions of Die Zauberflöte, among other roles. Matt Boehler, whom The New York Times has deemed "a bass with an attitude and the goods to back it up," and whom The Washington Post hailed as "a supple, clarion bass," makes his Company debut in the role of the Hotel Manager.
Several favorites of the downtown theater scene will have non-singing roles, including Jon Morris (Fuerza Bruta, Scheib's World of Wires) as the Waiter and Kaneza Schaal (The Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service) as the Nurse. The cast also features a non-singing chorus of thirty nude men.
For Scheib, Powder Her Face follows World of Wires (based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Welt am Draht), which premiered at The Kitchen in January 2012, won Scheib a 2012 Obie Award for Direction, earned rave reviews and has toured internationally. The director applies his signature multimedia approach to Adès' opera, with sets by Marsha Ginsberg, costumes by Alba Clemente, lighting by Thomas Dunn and projection design by Joshua Higgason.