The chamber opera Powder Her Face has acquired a reputation as a “Don Giovanni for the Monica Lewinsky generation”, a tagline of which I was initially quite skeptical. In college I took a semester-long “Don Giovanni class” that was devoted in its entirety to Mozart’s opera, which inspired countless essays, criticisms, racy productions for both film and the stage, and even a 1987 spin-off opera by Elodie Lauten. How could an opera so legendary that Kierkegaard wrote extensively about it really compare with an opera composed in the 1990s by a 24-year-old?
Thomas Adès’s controversial work tells the story of the real-life Duchess of Argyll, who was publicly accused of 88 extramarital affairs. Powder Her Face is in fact astutely comparable to Don Giovanni, whose mythical title character documents thousands of conquests rattled off by Giovanni’s servant during the famous “catalogue aria”. Giovanni, who might be diagnosed with narcissism or sex addiction by a modern psychologist, is ultimately incinerated by the fires of damnation, but not because he slept with every woman he laid eyes upon, systematically destroying their lives with his vague, commitophobic promises of marriage – always left unfulfilled when he scurried from their bedrooms as soon as any hint of boredom set in. No, Giovanni roasts in hell for second-degree murder – that’s right, he killed a man during the first scene. The Duchess of Argyll, on the other hand, is condemned for being “a woman unfit for marriage” and “a Don Juan among women” (by a judge who, in one of many satirical twists, is receiving a surreptitious blowjob underneath the table).
The opera achieves the perfect balance between hilarity and keen social commentary in its depiction of a woman who was described in her own obituary in 1993 as possessing a “debased sexual appetite”. Like Don Giovanni, the Duchess was mostly just bored – with, as a maid sings at one point, “too much money and nothing to do”. The scenes of her life are populated by champagne and cocaine and a string of interchangeable characters – cleverly illustrated by the other actors shifting seamlessly between multiple roles. Her husband, also engaged in an extramarital affair, is pardoned for making a mistake anybody could make, i.e. marrying incorrectly, while the Duchess gets painted by the media as a perverse woman who wasn’t satisfied with “normal” sexual relations. In fact, the scene in which the Duchess seduces a waiter and then performs fellatio on him, all while surrounded by dozens of silent nude men, turns the tables on not only the Don Juan myth but the myth that women are not supposed to enjoy sex. How refreshing to see men objectified in an entertainment culture that for the most part still treats women as objects!
In her role as the Duchess, the talented Allison Cook propelled through a slew of musical and physical gymnastics while maintaining an unmatched expressiveness. She was often followed closely by a “cameraman” whose film was projected in real time onto a large screen occupying different parts of the stage during different scenes; I was impressed by the range not only of her voice but of emotion displayed on her face during these close-ups. She suffused the banter of Philip Hensher’s libretto with enough human quality to remind us that the Duchess, unlike Don Giovanni, was a real person. And this libretto was a brilliant match for Adès’s music, even more so than the debatably “annoying” rhyme scheme of The Tempest, Adès’s excellent second opera.
Thomas Adès’s unique sound world was the perfect backdrop for a sex scandal. The orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer, navigated the score with spirited versatility. Like the actors, the musicians had to tackle multiple roles throughout the opera: a harp doubling electric bell and fishing reel, clarinets doubling bass clarinet and saxophone and swanee whistle, button accordion doubling electric bell, and so on. The brass instruments and hollow percussive textures punctuated the jazzy, smoldering harmonies and melodies like commas and periods in the newspaper stories circulating about the Duchess’s trial. At times the music flashed and dazzled like the ever-present paparazzi cameras; at others the descending wind passages dripped from the instruments like champagne from the glasses the Duchess was constantly smashing against the walls. The music was never predictable: dissonant enough to keep things interesting, but never discordant with the characters or the antics occurring onstage.
It’s hard to say if Powder Her Face will spark the same level of discourse that Mozart’s Don Giovanni incited over 200 years ago. At any rate, the combined efforts of director Jay Scheib, the set and costume designers, and the incredible performers creates a rare and surreal experience. Last year, Michael Grandage’s lackluster production of Don Giovanni put me to sleep; during Powder Her Face I was perched on the edge of my seat, hoping the story of the Dirty Duchess would never end.