Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face is not an opera for shy singers or easily embarrassed audiences. The Duchess’s infamous “blow job aria” is just one of many scenes featuring sex in assorted varieties: alone or with a partner (or two), sometimes costumed, and often aided by surprising props (a telephone, a wine bottle). Fortunately, both the cast and spectators were up to the challenge at West Edge Opera. Few seats were empty after the semi-pornographic first act. No wonder – no one would want to miss the chance to listen to these singers for another hour.

Laura Bohn (The Duchess) © Cory Weaver
Laura Bohn (The Duchess)
© Cory Weaver

The plot spans decades to tell the story of the Duchess of Argyll, from her infatuation with the Duke through their marriage, affairs and divorce. The divorce proceedings included salacious photographs and an 88-item list of men the Duke claimed the Duchess had slept with. (She lost the divorce case.) The opera also shows her many years later, granting a rare press interview and being thrown out of her hotel room because she cannot pay the bill. 

Laura Bohn (The Duchess) © Cory Weaver
Laura Bohn (The Duchess)
© Cory Weaver
Adès’ score is cacophonous and slippery. Monologues and dances (a jazzy ditty, an infernal tango) offer melodic anchors in the midst of chaos. In addition to more usual instruments, the score calls for fishing reels, swanee whistles and electric bells. This opera rewards attentive listening, layering melodies, sound effects and atmospheric noise to create a complicated and often overwhelming din. Under the baton of Mary Chun, the Earplay Orchestra brought clarity and energy to the music. Everything was balanced on the edge of extremes: piercing but not shrill, loud without drowning out the voices, jarring while remaining cohesive.

As the Duchess, Laura Bohn was the heart of the show. She got the most difficult and the most beautiful music, as well as the only character arc. Bohn’s Duchess moved from ambition and sexual abandon to nostalgia and desperation. Her lush soprano slithered through the space, always immediate and present. The “room service” and interview scenes were particular shows of vocal and dramatic prowess. Her Duke, sung by baritone Hadleigh Adams, was a dark-voiced monster of callousness. Adams maneuvered the role’s wide range with confidence and ping. He was at his best when he donned the robes of the hypocritical judge, who enjoyed receiving fellatio from his assistant (and who matched his delivery of each note to his level of stimulation) moments before denouncing the Duchess for her licentiousness.

Soprano Emma McNairy and tenor Jonathan Blalock filled a dizzying array of secondary roles: maid, confidante, journalist, electrician, and delivery boy, to name a few. McNairy tossed off pitches far above the staff while crawling and tumbling about the stage. In particular, “fancy, fancy being rich” showed off her sparkling top notes, wide range, and engaging stage presence. Blalock also managed a very high-lying part with robust tone and great vocal agility. He had both the looks and the theatrical flair for his parade of young, sexy characters.

Emma McNairy and Hadleigh Adams © Cory Weaver
Emma McNairy and Hadleigh Adams
© Cory Weaver

A large bed dominated the unchanging set, providing a place for much of the sex (and nearly every scene really was a sex scene). Sand falling into the Duchess’s hands and piling up on one side of the room symbolized the passage of time. Projections of the year on the back wall (1990, 1934, etc.) offered a more specific indication of when each scene took place. Oakland’s abandoned train station was the perfect venue, its faded glamor mirroring that of the Duchess’ life. This was modern opera and West Edge Opera at their best.