We constantly hear that these are more receptive times for new music, but don’t tell that to American composers under the age of 35 – I wonder how many concert- and operagoers hereabouts can even name one. The situation is different in England, where young composers are vigorously nurtured and promoted in ways that their counterparts in this country can only dream about. The current darling of the day is Thomas Adès, extravagantly acclaimed at 27, performed from Tirana to Tokyo, and whose each new score is hailed by British critics, an influential power bloc, as a towering masterpiece. His biggest and most discussed success to date is the chamber opera Powder Her Face, already staged worldwide and recently seen at Brooklyn’s Majestic Theater under the auspices of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Robert Spano conducting.
It was clever of Adès to write an opera at this tender stage in his career; it is the only way for an ambitious composer, even if he is a genius, to capture international attention. The subject matter was also cannily chosen: the infamously lubricious Margaret Whigham, Duchess of Argyll (1912-1993), whose sensational 1963 divorce trial made headlines. The judge, Lord Wheatley, handed down a 65,000-word verdict that described the defendant as indulging in, among other outrages, “disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite” – a reference to a well-circulated photograph of the Duchess performing oral sex, a scene graphically portrayed in the opera (all of this pre-Lewinsky, of course). Some took a more indulgent view of a woman who enchanted English society with her beauty, charm, and wit, praising her as a latter-day Helen of Troy. She was immortalized as early as 1934, when Cole Porter included her, at the time married to a certain Mr. Sweeney, in his song “You’re the Top” by rhyming Mrs. Sweeney with Mussolini.
Perhaps wisely, the Duchess’s cautionary tale is not presented in a naturalistic biographical form or even as a character study. The libretto, by British novelist Philip Hensher, is laid out in eight scenes, snapshots from her life between 1934 and 1990 in which the Duchess’s personality is defined more by the people who encounter her than by her own actions – a technique that recalls Berg’s Lulu, just one of the many influences on Powder Her Face. All the subsidiary roles are divided among three singers who symbolize the destructive forces in her life: a coloratura maid/confidante/waitress/society journalist, a tenor electrician/lounge lizard/waiter/delivery boy, and a bass hotel manager/duke/judge. Overall, the tone of the piece is more mischievous than sardonic, at least until the last fifteen minutes, when the picture darkens and the deserted Duchess faces death with a frightened heart and empty hands.
This is the first Adès score I’ve heard that satisfactorily explains the effusive praise he generates back home. There is scarcely a major composer of our departing century who is not evoked in one way or another: Berg, Weill, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Janácek, Strauss, Piazzola, Ligeti – name your man, and he is probably hiding here somewhere, often flirting with any number of pop idioms. And yet the music is far from being a reheated postmodernist stew. What Adès has done, as I hear it, is to absorb a welter of conflicting styles and process them so thoroughly that his music takes on a voice of its own simply through the sheer technical brilliance of his assimilative skill – Mozart, after all, functioned in much the same way. Another reason it all sounds so fresh is Adès’s alert ear for the unusual sonorities he draws from an unconventional ensemble of clarinets, saxophone, horn, trumpet, trombone, accordion, piano, harp, and string quintet. The colors he mixes with this combination are not only fascinating in themselves but are also applied with the gestural accuracy and theatrical flair of a born opera composer.
These positive impressions only came into sharp focus for me after listening to the stunning new EMI Classics recording (56649-2) conducted by Adès himself. The Brooklyn performance, based on the opera’s American premiere production at the 1997 Aspen Festival, seemed rather wan in comparison, mostly due to the chamber ensemble’s less-than-virtuoso playing. Then, too, the arena-style architecture of the Majestic Theater proved unwelcoming for Anne C. Patterson’s clever period sets and costumes and the high-energy athleticism of Edward Berkeley’s staging. Most damaging of all, Màire O’Brien’s pallid Duchess seldom came to life, although her nemeses – Heather Buck, Trevor Smith, and Allen Schrott – could hardly be faulted for a lack of brio. No, the recording is the place to go to learn about Powder Her Face, the impressive first opera of a young composer who may not be overhyped after all.