“Powder Her Face” at Opera Philadelphia

June, 2013

While I was visiting family back east, I was able to catch a performance of Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face”, a chamber opera written in 1995 but having its Philadelphia premiere in this production. At the Kimmel Center, it was presented in the Perelman Theater, an intimate and lovely space, which was perfect for this opera.

Opera Philadelphia, as it is now known, is thriving under its new leader, David Devan. There is also an interesting relationship with the Curtis Institute of Music under the enterprising leadership of Mikael Eliasen which contributes to the recent vibrancy of this company. The programming is much more adventurous, as witnessed by this rep choice, and the audience seems to be responding very well. David and his team are taking a measured and responsible approach to stimulating this fairly conservative audience and so far the results are really impressive.

The production depicted the opera in a very straight forward manner, allowing the subject matter to speak for itself.  The cast was led by the superlative Patricia Schuman, who replaced Nancy Gustafson (who had to withdraw for health reasons) on very short notice. She looked perfect and sounded fantastic. The other standout in the cast was Ashley Emerson, whose brilliant coloratura was also beautiful in its timbre. The music is very distinctive: eclectic, vibrant, irreverent and free-wheeling but under complete artistic control at the same time. It is an exhuberant piece, masterfully composed–and very difficult. The orchestra was led beautifully by Music Director Corrado Rovaris, who obtained an immaculate reading that was also full of life. Very well done.

The piece begs the questions: are we merely to feel sympathy for an older, dying woman, who is perhaps filled with regret for past indiscretions? Are we to be titillated and/or shocked by her past behavior (not)? There are hints of a social critique of the upper class–is the piece about the revenge of the middle class? Or the brutal envy of the middle class for those with untold wealth? As the central figure faced her impending death, the music had such overwhelming power that seemed only fitting for significant tragedy, not suited to anything as banal or superficial as what the overt level of the story seems to be about. There clearly is meant to be a more faceted, deep meaning. I look forward to encountering the piece again–and hopefully to directing it some day.

Most importantly, the main impression I was left with was that of a daring company, exploring edgy repertoire in an intimate theater. Who could ask for more?

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