Toward the end of Odyssey Opera’s production of “Powder Her Face,” a door opens in the wall of the aged Duchess’s hotel room as her irresistible invitation to the next world, and the sound of, yes, fishing reels in the orchestra tells us that her life is being reeled in. It’s a terrifying moment for a woman who keeps asking for more time, and just one of many riveting sequences in the final installment of Odyssey’s “British Invasion” festival of music dramas.
Despite being celebrated for its oral-sex scene, and for the line “Go to bed early and often,” “Powder Her Face” is not about sex. It’s not even very sexy. Nor does it have be. In their 1995 chamber opera, composer Thomas Adès and librettist Philip Hensher create a complex, multilayered portrait of Britain’s rich and famous — and those who envy them. Adès’s vocal writing and instrumental score are dizzyingly inventive, ferociously difficult, and invariably rewarding.
The Duchess is based on Margaret Whigham, who boasted Hollywood stars and British cabinet ministers among her reported 88 lovers. Her marriage to the Duke of Argyll ended in a sensational divorce after the Duke found in his wife’s possession a nude photograph of her and one that showed her having oral sex with a naked man.
Written in eight scenes and a “Ghost Epilogue,” the opera opens in 1990. The Duchess is living in a posh West End hotel, where an Electrician and a Maid make fun of her. Flash back to 1934, when she’s the belle of London society and a Cole Porter–style song is written about her. (The Duchess of Argyll actually did get mentioned in a version of Porter’s “You’re the Top.”)
From there the libretto works its way forward to 1990, when the Hotel Manager evicts the Duchess because she’s eight months in arrears on her bill. But the centerpiece of the opera is the trial scene, in which an obtuse and increasingly hysterical Judge calls the Duchess “insatiable, unnatural, and altogether fairly appalling” (no rebuke of her philandering husband), and she makes a dignified, even noble, defense.
The 15-piece orchestra comments on the action as if it were the chorus in a Greek tragedy. “Powder Her Face” begins with what sound like car horns before transitioning into period tangos. At one point, the libretto demands a “small riot” from the orchestra, but Adès’s imagination runs riot everywhere. The score, which calls for everything from Blu-Tack on the piano strings to the aforementioned fishing reels, seems a loving summation of the 20th century, its glissandi gently dissolving tonality. The Duchess croons her room-service order for meat and wine as if she were Richard Strauss’s Salome asking for the head of John the Baptist. When at the trial she removes her veil, Adès quotes a few bars from the unveiling of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” The Hotel Manager makes his final appearance to the tune of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”
New York City’s Opera’s 2013 production at Brooklyn Academy of Music featured, in the oral-sex scene, 25 naked men. Odyssey stage director Nic Muni takes a simpler approach. The projections — newspaper headlines and period photographs — fix the time frame and suggest the setting. The Duchess’s gray, genteel bedroom, with its writing tables and divan, does duty for every venue, even the courtroom, where the bed is ingeniously transformed into a judicial bench.
The role of the Duchess has to elicit a degree of sympathy, and Patricia Schuman, arch one moment and cuddly the next, does just that. The other three cast members cope with the remaining roles: Ben Wager as the Hotel Manager, the Duke, and the Judge; Daniel Norman as the Electrician, the Lounge Lizard, and the Waiter; Amanda Hall as the Maid, the Duke’s Mistress, and a Society Journalist (here identified as Gloria Steinem). The singing is stellar, if at times unavoidably strident; the differentiation of character is even better.
What’s missing is supertitles. The orchestra, particularly the winds, really pops in the Boston Conservatory Theatre’s bright acoustic, and that leaves a fair bit of the libretto — most regrettably Hall’s soaring “Fancy” aria — unintelligible. The singers compensate with body language, but it would be wise to read the synopsis ahead of time and note who’s playing who.
“Powder Her Face”
Music by Thomas Adès, libretto by Philip Hensher
Odyssey Opera, conducted by Gil Rose
At: Boston Conservatory Theatre, Thursday (repeats on Friday and Saturday)
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.