Thomas Ades' opera Powder her Face, whose famously risque aria midway through the first act was both a source of scandal and notoriety for the young composer, has finally been reissued after years of floating around in that great cut-out bin in the sky. This work is not for everyone--certainly not for anybody under 13--but for those who can stomach such a lengthy expose of sex and scandal mingled with atonality and allusion, it should give hours and hours of puzzling entertainment.
The opera is written in a style that can only be described as eclectic, not at all surprising from a composer who apparently, in Asyla, found inspiration in the "house" music found in British (most likely gay) nightclubs. If you just heard the opening overture [read: tango], you might think you are in for a populist romp of an opera, but as things move along such illusions are quickly shattered. The story at times can be somewhat difficult to follow (HERE HE COMES!~), but it is one of those surreal things that seems to have a meaning, it is just difficult to ascertain what it is. And yet, it all seems to be alluding to one opera anti-hero or another as every scene goes by. The first scenes fragmented music is reminescent of the pseudo-Chinese "collectively written" ballet sequence from Adams' Nixon in China. But it leads into an interlude which sounds as if it was borrowed from the drowning scene from "Wozzeck." This interlude raises the curtains to a scene where a "lounge lizard" sings a song of seduction reminiscent of "Mack the Knife" from Weill's "Threepenny Opera." It is truely the Berio Sinfonia of operas, albeit far more masturbatory. But as the opera progresses, Ades' early work's contrapuntal melancholy quickly comes to the fore. It is a manifestation of the Duchess' recognition of her journey through her own story, from fame to boredom to disaster. Such themes are made explicit in the touching aria "So that is all" in Act II.
The vocal writing is easily understood at some times and in the stratosphere in others. But in general, when the words need understanding, they ring clear as a bell. The performance will most likely remain the standard (and probably the only, too) for years to come.
The Bottom Line:
For those and ONLY those who already have a strong grounding in 20th century opera, this is a must hear. But I can't shake the feeling that the opera revels in its own vulgarity a tad too long, inflating the first act until any sympathy you had for the Duchess has run away, as fast as the waiter whose mouth she paid for.