Naughty Duchess

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday August 9, 2016
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Powder Her Face, the daring operatic bombshell first thrown at the British class system by composer Thomas Ades and librettist Philip Hensher in 1995, finally got its West Coast-staged premiere at the historic abandoned train station in Oakland last week, part of West Edge Opera's Festival 2016.

It isn't too late for Bay Area audiences to find out what caused such a fuss two decades ago. There is still bold relevance and a lot more to consider in the loudmouthed score than the infamous blowjob aria in Act I, which gives a whole new meaning to humming chorus. In the perceptive staging by director Elkhanah Pulitzer, the show becomes a noisy meditation on excess, morality and fame. Hectic in the manner of a British sex farce, there is more simulated rumpy-pumpy onstage than the script actually calls for, but it is caricature, and while the performers are undeniably attractive, it is also distinctly unerotic.

Pulitzer allows a few visual rests and even some fleeting sympathy for the generally unpleasant central character, but just when you think there might be a bit of warmth left in the old dinosaur, Hensher's words condemn her with an offhand anti-Semitic remark or a loopy diatribe on the proletariat.

In a series of flashbacks, the caustic libretto recounts the lurid story of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Known as the "Dirty Duchess" from reports of her sensational 1963 divorce case, she may have been the first aristocrat to gain celebrity from naughty photos and outrageous gossip. Fifty years later, the Kardashians have built an empire on sketchy branding. The Duchess only managed to survive in a posh London hotel until her personal fortune was spent.

Featuring the cheeky little R-rated masterpiece (it made Thomas Ades' name when he was just 24) in the lineup of Festival 2016 seems less risky than smart for West Edge. Additional performances have been added, and ironically enough, it proves the company's good taste in recognizing innovative works.

The decaying train station in Oakland looks deserted outside, but the faded interior comes alive with an elevated stage that accommodates decent sightlines for a large audience. The orchestra is also mostly visible, and the station seems an utterly fitting venue for Powder Her Face.

Scene from West Edge Opera's West Coast staged premiere of Thomas Ades' Powder Her Face. Photo: Cory Weaver

The set by Chad Owens is functional, and the lighting by Ray Oppenheimer garishly shows Christine Crook's witty costumes to full advantage. Sophia Smith's wig and makeup design is clever too, though why she opted for platinum blond hair for the men remains a question.

The cavernous station supplies most of the atmosphere, and despite a dry acoustic, Music Director Mary Chun expertly conducted the 15 members of the orchestra in an exciting performance of the crazy-brilliant score. Alban Berg and even a whiff of Richard Strauss mingle with splintered tangos and nostalgic dance music, but the brutally high tessitura assigned to Emma McNairy in various roles doesn't suggest much kindness from Ades towards sopranos.

McNairy is up to the task, even when the sheer volume of her singing threatens to shatter glass. Her clarity and sassy acting, not to mention her fetching look in schoolgirl gear, captivated the crowd. The man next to me turned to his female companion and said, "Isn't she wonderful?"

The eye-candy casting was evenly spread throughout the four-member cast. They managed strong singing, too, blissfully okay with an intentional costume malfunction here or a flash of pubic hair there. Hey, when you got it, use it �" just like the Duchess did.

New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams is a former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow and graduate of the Merola Opera Program. Out, proud and currently based in the US, his local reputation is assured with his combination of resonant voice, nuanced acting and drop-dead good looks. In the pivotal roles of the iniquitous Duke, Judge and unyielding Hotel Manager, Adams confidently delivered the goods.

Rising American tenor Jonathan Blalock is another looker who is out, talented and generous about removing his shirt. He was funny and convincing as a Hotel Electrician, Rent Boy, Lounge Lizard, and others.

The necessary anchor to the piece is the Duchess, and Seattle native, soprano Laura Bohn lent surprising dignity to the role. She managed to project complexity in a woman who stubbornly celebrated her own superficiality.

By the time the saga ends, everyone is satiated with schadenfreude . Though she was reviled and envied, the unrepentant Duchess survived as a relic of a decadent era. Powder Her Face is not only powerful entertainment, but also an acute assessment of modern narcissism.


West Edge Festival offers two more performances: Thurs. & Sat., Aug. 11 & 13. Info: