Though it took the English 250 years to find a worthy successor to Henry Purcell, the wait may well have been worth it, given that the Chosen One was Benjamin Britten. Now, just two decades after Britten’s death, the English believe a new musical savior has risen. His name is Thomas Adès, and he’s all of twenty-seven years old. Last year, he was appointed music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and this year he assumes the artistic directorship of Britten’s old stamping ground, the prestigious Aldeburgh Festival. In December, his first opera, the three-year-old Powder Her Face, appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and most of New York’s musical establishment came out to hear it.

The advance word was that here was a work of uncommon brilliance: sharp-edged and provocative, yet also musically inventive and even forward-looking. The British, ever parochial when it comes to native sons, had dubbed Adès a visionary, but the bits of evidence that made their way across the Atlantic suggested that Adès’s talents extended beyond chauvinism. EMI, which signed Adès to an exclusive contract, had already released three albums of his varied oeuvre, which included, in addition to Powder Her Face, a string quartet, some vaguely programmatic works, a hymn, a neo-Baroque sonata, a short song cycle, and two solo piano works. Moreover, Adès is—like Britten—a gifted pianist and conductor who has not hesitated to lend a hand toward advancing his reputation before the public.

Adès’s opera is not so much an assault upon convention as an outright mugging.

Imagine, then, the sense of betrayal, to say nothing of disappointment, one felt upon realizing that Powder Her Face is a sham. The huzzahs of more than a few respected critics notwithstanding, Adès’s opera is not so much an assault upon convention as an outright mugging. Like a boorish party guest who insists on speaking right in your face despite (or perhaps because of) his very bad breath, Powder Her Face forces audiences to hold their noses as it spews malodorous bile. The source of one’s frustration is not so much Adès’s score—though the music lacks sustained themes and connective tissue—but rather this opera’s subject, or, more precisely, its treatment of its subject.

Through its fractured structure and use of chic irony, the opera tries to distance itself from its inspiration, but it never goes far enough. And thus, the sad and fascinating tale of England’s Margaret Whigham Sweeny is very much at the center of things. A great beauty who upon her second marriage became the Duchess of Argyll, Margaret later found herself embroiled in one of the century’s most notorious divorce cases. The 1963 judgment found for her husband, and Margaret was publicly shamed by a 65,000-word verdict that upbraided her for “disgusting sexual activities” and a “debased sexual appetite.” In particular, she seems to have favored men, often servants, with a rather too intimate form of gratification. As Terry Teachout so efficiently put it in Time magazine, the Duchess was both able and willing when it came to providing the “Full Monica.”

In our ever-coarsening culture, mention of such things, while certainly not to be encouraged, must reluctantly be accepted. And yet there are ways of handling vulgar topics with restraint. To suggest that Adès and his librettist Philip Hensher, a well-regarded English critic and novelist, failed in their attempt at discretion is to ignore the enjoyment both men seem to have derived from the Duchess’s self-inflicted debasement. One is tempted to speculate on the possible motives for this misogyny, but let’s leave that to the professionals. Unfortunately, audiences must endure Adès and Hensher’s perverted pleasure (and pleasure at perversion) throughout this opera, for the central leitmotif in Powder Her Face is of unrestrained glee at an unfulfilled life coming apart at the seams. Hensher’s libretto practically exults in the Duchess’s myriad humiliations. And even Adès’s score—a glittering, clanging, crashing amalgam of arresting sounds spiked with ersatz 1930s dance tunes and fleeting moments of Straussian introspection—begrudges this opera’s protagonist a moment of musical compassion.

One could, of course, contend that’s precisely the point of this opera: a meditation-cum-reverie on our culture’s fascination with excess, decline and fall, superficiality, and other ills. But that hardly explains the pervasive meanspiritedness that colors this work. Indeed, what Adès and Hensher fail to realize is that it’s precisely their opera’s nihilistic approach that will repel audiences from the ideas that lie at its heart. Maybe the relative youth of both composer and librettist accounts for the naughty schoolboy aesthetic pervading this work, but it is only on those terms that the opera provides any sort of excitement—and even then the thrill is joyless.

Having said all that, I found the production of Powder Her Face presented by BAM and the Brooklyn Philharmonic an odd amalgam of offensiveness and panache. There was certainly a defiant spirit at work here. The staging—or semistaging, as it were—came via the Aspen Music Festival, where the opera had its American premiere in the summer of 1997. Edward Berkeley, who directed that production, oversaw this one as well, and the four singers (performing seventeen roles) who composed the Brooklyn cast were also Aspen alumni, as was the set and costume designer Anne C. Patterson. What audiences at the Brooklyn performances probably noticed first—that is, after they took the measure of the decrepit Majestic Theater—was the striking way in which Patterson’s two-tiered sets very nearly integrated the orchestra into the action. In a chamber opera like this one, the scheme made perfect sense. Some of the decorative items, too, struck one as ideal: the old wind-up gramophone; the large, battered trunk; the dowdy, well-built furniture upholstered in a muted filigree pattern. It was all so suggestive of a fine hotel, just as Hensher’s libretto required. But then what of that large bed on which appeared pillows resembling ample female breasts (complete with nipples)? Toward the foot of the bed, like a rumpled coverlet, lay an upholstered pair of spread legs. Mercifully, my distance from the stage prevented me from discerning much more detail.

Restraint has little place in this sordid series of surrealistic tableaux, which career across time and space, from 1990 to the Thirties to the Fifties to 1970 and then back to 1990. “Fetch my life,” the Duchess exclaims early on, but Hensher never tells us much about her. For the most part, the action, such as it is, takes place in hotel rooms, but the work’s dramatic climax, at the beginning of the second act, occurs when an unsympathetic judge rules against the Duchess and she begins her downward spiral. Yet the verdict is hardly this opera’s most memorable moment. That dubious honor comes in Act I, when the Duchess in a fit of lust and loneliness seduces a hotel waiter. There are several ways in which this now-infamous scene might have been written, but Adès and Hensher don’t believe in stinting on veracity, at least not here. The act is portrayed graphically, with the Duchess on her knees in front of the waiter, who has dropped his trousers. Soon she begins to moan, and a sort of humming chorus for one ensues, with the Duchess accompanied first by an accordion (of all things!) and then by various other instruments. The sequence concludes aptly, with a prolonged gagging-and-coughing fit.

Still, throughout this excruciating effort, Adès manages to create music that, at its best, is bold, inventive, sly, catchy and invigorating.

Still, throughout this excruciating effort, Adès manages to create music that, at its best, is bold, inventive, sly, catchy and invigorating. Adès really is a bona fide talent. It is no empty compliment to say that this composer hears sounds the rest of us don’t—until, that is, he sets them down for us to savor. His music speaks to listeners. Who else would think to couple a viola and trombone in a vamp? Or thrust bebop into the middle of an operatic score? And what modern composer, save Astor Piazzolla, makes such use of the accordion? To be sure, Adès’s music jumps too eagerly from idea to idea. Like a hyperactive child, it refuses to sit still when we wish it would. But a unifying thread runs through these strains, barely perceptible sometimes, yet no less present for its low profile. Occasionally, Adès generates mood almost for its own sake, as when the Duke first enters. The motif signifies fate, of course, but the composer puts a cinematic spin on it by making it sound like a theme from some B-movie melodrama. In the Judge’s aria—which progresses from stately to sputtering to hysterical—Adès does something similar, but for comic effect. By combining pizzicatos in the strings with brass wailings and inventive percussion clusters, he creates a courtroom environment in which Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts would be right at home.

Adès achieves his striking musical effects in large part through inventive orchestration. When was the last time a pit band had more winds than strings, or a prepared piano and fishing reels in its arsenal? And though the composer makes extraordinary demands on the fifteen-member orchestra he requires for this opera, there is an element of fun here no player can resist. The percussionist is luckiest of all, trying his hand at everything from a rattle to a whip to a popgun, in addition to a whole series of drums. (My favorite of the score’s instructions reads as follows: “metal dustbin full of crockery and cutlery; four mugs to throw in.”) At BAM the game, polished musicians were all members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Led with estimable vigor and commitment by the conductor Robert Spano (the orchestra’s music director and a dedicated advocate of new works), they gave Adès’s score, regardless of its shortcomings, as good a performance as it is likely to get.

The singers were less successful. As the Duchess, the soprano Marie O’Brien sang with a tight, focused sound. Hers was a thankless role, but O’Brien, looking like a plump Helena Bonham Carter, shouldered the part with a generally regal bearing—when that was possible, of course. The soprano Heather Buck, in a variety of roles (Maid, Mistress, Society Journalist, etc.), made a more favorable impression, trilling nicely. With a pretty figure, natural charm, and a voice like a pull-whistle, she was easily this production’s standout performer. The bass Allen Schrott (as the Duke, the Judge, the Hotel Manager/Death, etc.) also seemed well suited to his duties. Though there was some weakness in his bottom tones, his crisp diction and lean good looks made him a powerful force on the stage. The tenor Trevor Smith (Electrician, Waiter, Lounge Lizard, etc.) fared worst. Lacking vocal power, he swallowed many of his notes and never seemed comfortable in Adès and Hensher’s tawdry world.

The papers report that Adès has already gained a commission for a new work from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, so it’s no use hoping that this talented composer will leave music dramas to others. He will be a vibrant force in opera. Thus we must wish for something else, something simple. We must trust that Thomas Adès, wunderkind, grows up. Adès can be a deep, sophisticated composer, so this is no pipe dream. Gifted youngsters like to show off; Mozart certainly did, albeit in ways that seem less rude to us today. Adès may not ever disavow Powder Her Face, but he should move beyond its shallow flash. Vulgarity is beneath his talents.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 7, on page 51
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/1999/3/the-meanspirited-wunderkind

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