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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Opera Review: Sex Crime

Opera Philadelphia mounts Powder Her Face.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Patricia Schuman as Margaret Campbell, the "dirty Duchess."
Photo by Kelly & Massa, © 2013 Opera Philadelphia.
For better or worse, the excessive lifestyle, erotic exploits and 1963 divorce proceedings of the late Margaret Campbell, the former Duchess of Argyll established the British tabloid as a journalistic institution. Thirty years later, Mrs. Campbell's tawdry affairs inspired a young British composer, Thomas Adés, to make the so-called "dirty Duchess" the subject of his first opera, Powder Her Face.


Mrs. Campbell was a socialite and bon vivant who was considered one of the most beautiful women of the mid 20th century. (She allegedly inspired composer Cole Porter to write "You're the Top." At the the divorce court, her husband alleged that she engaged in extramarital sex with as many as 88 partners. The judge labeled her as a " completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men."

Plus, there were Polaroids.

This Opera Philadelphia production (by William Kerley and designer Tom Rogers) is the second new production of Powder on the East Coast this year. It couches Mrs. Campbell's activities in a unit hotel bedroom, with love-seats, an enormous bed and a blizzard of Polaroids emerging silently from cabinets in the walls. The silent, sliding furniture lends a touch of the surreal to the proceedings, as one is never sure if the following simulated sex is real or a product of the main character's increasing dementia.

For this production, soprano Patricia Schuman was a late replacement as Mrs. Campbell. She is a flawless fit for the part, playing the lady with an elegant exterior that hides a rotten, soulless core. Her supple, athletic soprano meets the demands of this music, with a cool center and hot upper end. The more titillating moments  (the infamous "humming" sex scene) are played straight, and are funnier as a result.

She is flanked by a young cast of three players that play the other seventeen parts in the show. In her company debut, Ashley Emerson has even higher music to sing, taking on her five roles and racing through the Mozartean passages with the ease born of long conservatory training. The silvery, almost icey edge to her coloratura that fits the amorality of her her respective characters.

Tenor Christopher Tiesi meets the multiple challenges of his roles with a light, pleasant tenor and good comic instincts. This is particularly apparent in his long scene with Ms. Schuman as a hotel waiter who plays the innocent victim until revealing that this is his second encounter with Mrs. Campbell's voracious appetites.

Ben Wager is a talented baritone and comic actor with a dark edge to his voice. As the Duke (Mrs. Campbell's husband) he gets the most hypocritical role in the show, deciding to ditch his wife for infidelity when in bed with his Mistress. He underlines the injustice of the situation by also acting as the judge in a comic trial that owes something to both Gilbert and Sullivan and the last act of Pink Floyd's The Wall.

In a final slap to the Duchess' face, he returns as the Hotel Manager to evict the destitute heroine from her meager digs. This eviction is played as a parody and reverse of the standard operatic finale, as the lady in question fights and struggles against being taken out of her room (and thus offstage.) Ms. Schuman is exceptional in this circumstance, bringing pathos and a welcome touch of sympathy to this decidedly unsympathetic heroine.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.