Take four very talented performers. Throw in a score that pushes them to their vocal limits. Add an accordion and a fishing reel to the orchestra. Mix with a healthy dose of wry humor. Dot with ostrich features in Mary Kay pink. Simmer with sexual innuendo for two hours and eleven minutes. And voilà! You have the provocative chamber opera that closes Opera Philadelphia’s 2012/13 season, the sardonic stunner Powder Her Face.

Patricia Schuman © courtesy of Opera Philadelphia; photo by Kelly & Massa
Patricia Schuman
© courtesy of Opera Philadelphia; photo by Kelly & Massa

For the last two years, Opera Philadelphia concluded their season with an offering from the Aurora Series, devoted to showcasing adventurous works in the intimate setting of the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center. Based on the exploits of the real-life Duchess of Argyll – also known as the “Dirty Duchess” – Powder Her Face, composed by Londoner Thomas Adès with libretto by British novelist Philip Hensher, audaciously filled the bill.

It’s almost impossible to believe that Adès wrote this work at only age 24. Certainly, the modern world has known its virtuosos. Besides its musical sophistication – a pastiche of musical influences – it’s the overarching tone of the work that has heft beyond his years, as though written by someone who has observed a lifetime of rich people behaving badly. It’s a very cheeky work that winks at you when it knows it is too clever by half. This occurs in the opening scene when the handyman is modeling a full-length fur atop a pouffe, while the audience sheepishly mistakes him for the duchess for a split second – until he turns around and delivers a vocal and visual “gotcha!”

The subject matter is far from uplifting. It documents the downward spiral and ultimate decompensation of a too rich, too bored duchess who deserves and gets little sympathy from commoners on the outside looking in on her story. One can predict the trajectory of her life from early on in the opera. Despite all the trappings of beauty and luxury, her essential story is quite ugly, one that can’t be forgotten too soon. It’s not the Duchess of Argyll’s story that is riveting – that is, unless one prefers a steady diet of The Jerry Springer Show and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It’s the artistry employed to condense her life into two acts of chamber opera, it’s the shards that the creatives selected to represent this woman’s life, and the skill with which this work was performed that made it so compelling.

Highest marks must go to the creative team interpreting this work for Opera Philadelphia – chiefly director William Kerley, set and costume designer Tom Rogers, and lighting designer David Howe. The production values were exquisite. Kerley delivered the sensuality that must underpin this opera without ever devolving into seedy and shocking, like having, oh, a baker’s dozen of naked men filling the duchess’ bedchamber. The set and lighting were more than functional. They became clever co-conspirators in the boudoir.

Opera Philadelphia veteran Patricia Schuman turned in a brave and remarkable performance as the Duchess of Argyll. Schuman is an elegant presence on stage with a regal bearing. In her floor-length hot pink dressing gown and period wig, she graced the stage like that grande dame of the early days of American television Kitty Carlisle. Some of the demands placed on Schuman, such as performing sex acts while singing a complex score, were outlandish and even out-of-bounds. Yet, she did even these things with the propriety of an English aristocrat – a testament to her ability to internalize and render an authentic character during performance.

Tenor Christopher Tiesi was a marvel in his many roles as the Electrician / Lounge Lizard / Waiter / Priest. He has remarkable comic timing and a chameleon-like ability to take on any persona all while vocally nailing a sometimes atonal and arrhythmic work.

Bass Ben Wager excelled singing his assorted roles as the Hotel Manager / Laundryman / Judge. Most notably, he portrayed the womanizing Duke of Argyll so convincingly he might have left a trail of scum behind him as he traipsed around the stage in a squiffy, oversexed stupor.

In her Opera Philadelphia debut, soprano Ashley Emerson was simply a gem, sparkling with every appearance. She can and did play any part with conviction – Maid / Mistress / Waitress / Rubbernecker. More impressively, her parts demanded that she trot out a coloratura on cue requiring more vocal agility than anything Mozart wrote for his coloratura sopranos.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris was a marvel, corralling and coaxing his musicians to deliver a complicated, too-dissonant score while supporting the singers and advancing the story. The overture itself was worth the price of admission. Under his baton, what could have sounded like an exercise in cat herding was a treat, unique in the annals of opera with its jazzy, bluesy undertones.

At curtain call, all the performers were very generously applauded. After turning in an afternoon of dazzling vocal gymnastics and spot-on performances, the ensemble had certainly earned a standing ovation, but only selected audience members stood. That had more to do with the overall effect of the work. By its conclusion, the audience feels the deflation of the central character. Sadly, the story of a woman of privilege addicted to excess who throws away her life just doesn’t inspire standing ovations. More like the need to shower off a layer of acquired slime.

Opera Philadelphia deserves much credit for bringing Powder Her Face to the stage for area operagoers to experience. It was an afternoon of the good (performances and technical artistry), the bad (behaviors of the über-privileged), and the ugly (downfall of a duchess).