Odyssey Opera's "Powder Her Face": Making Up Is Hard to Do

Patricia Schuman in "Powder Her Face"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The British are leaving. The “British Invasion” festival of works performed by Odyssey Opera has come to a close with its final offering, that of the 1995 tragicomic chamber opera by composer Thomas Adès and librettist Philip Hensher. Though sung in English, it was played here by a fourteen piece orchestra which, with its exuberant sound, too often made one long for surtitles. The score is varied and approachable, with some homages to the music of Schubert, Strauss and Stravinsky. December 10, 1998 was its U.S. Premiere, and Adès also wrote and conducted the Met Opera's “Tempest” three seasons ago.

In the course of about two and a half hours, it was presented in eight scenes and an epilogue. This production starred Patricia Schuman as the Duchess (in real life, Margaret Whigham, wife of the Duke of Argyll) who was said to have had eighty-eight lovers over the course of her life, ultimately divorced by him when he discovered nude photographs of her with one of her naked lovers (including one notorious for its graphic sex scene). The story begins in 1990 in a hotel in the West End, with flashbacks to 1934 when she was at her social peak. It evolves to 1990 again when she is evicted by the manager of the hotel over an eight-month-old bill. Famously (or infamously) performed a few years ago by City Opera in New York with some two dozen naked men and a very explicit sex scene, here it was far more modestly recreated. She's supported by three other singers, in multiple roles including: Beg Wager as Hotel Manager, Duke, Laundryman and Hotel Guest; Amanda Hall as the Maid, Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker and Journalist; and Daniel Norman as the Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Priest, Rubbernecker, Delivery Boy and Waiter. All sang splendidly, despite the demanding score, which jumps precipitously from the lowest to the highest ranges. The technical contributions were all well done, from the versatile Set Design by Nic Muni (who also directed), to the atmospheric Lighting Design (including superb projections) by Linda O'Brien, to the humorous Costume Design by Amanda Mujica. Hensher's libretto, when audible (which unfortunately wasn't often) had its share of trite rhymes, but the complex music was what the audience seemed to enjoy most.

As modern operas go, this was a bit jarring at times; at other points, the music was fascinatingly varied, from an accordion tango to a bit of jazz trumpet to a rousing bass clarinet to the clash of cymbals. As noted in the program, the composer's “musical language here is memory itself- fragmented, dreamlike shards of tunes that seem familiar and strange at the same time...episodic, exaggerated and somehow exotic”. The instruments range from two bass saxaphones to three bass clarinets to about forty forms of percussion. As Conducted by the company's Artistic and General Director Gil Rose, it was a masterful interpretation of a very challenging piece to play, easily filling the venue at the Boston Conservatory theater.

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