NEW YORK (AP) — Thomas Ades wanted to be provocative in his first opera, "Powder Her Face," when he composed a scene in which he musically depicts a sex act between the Duchess of Argyll and a waiter.
Not enough for director Jay Scheib, who turns the tawdry tale into a numbing night of decadence by adding two dozen naked men standing, stumbling and slumbering around a hotel room in New York City Opera's new production that opened Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House.
The 1995 work by the then 24-year-old composer started the company's second straight abbreviated season following its departure from Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
With glistening music and a poetic libretto by Philip Hensher portraying the libertine lives of the Duchess and Duke, a socialite proclaimed "wholly immoral" and "a Don Juan among women" by Lord Wheatley in his 1963 divorce ruling, Ades revels in the licentiousness that spilled into the British tabloids.
The pleasure-above-all nature of the Duchess, the former Ethel Margaret Whigham, is fueled by cocaine, alcohol, callousness and disregard for boundaries, while Ades searches for a modern musical idiom that would become more mature in his 2004 composition "The Tempest," given its Metropolitan Opera premiere last October.
There are hints of show tunes along with 20th-century giants, such as Berg, Satie and Strauss. The Duchess commands attention like a meteor burning across the sky.
"I was beautiful. I was famous. I was young. I was rich," the Electrician, disguised as the Duchess, sings during the first of nine stream-of-consciousness scenes that start and end in 1990 and stretch back to the 1950s and 1930s. The Duchess comes off as molten and cool at the same time, mixtures of heroines unable to cope with the acquisition and loss of money and attention.
She was the life of the party every night, an out-of-control, look-at-me Lohan, Kardashian and Hilton of the pre-television, pre-paparazzi age. She dabbed herself with the perfume "Joy" and tried to imbue the scent and sentiment into all around her.
But the scene moved on. Decades later she was evicted from her luxury hotel, disgraced and unable to pay her numerous bills.
Scampering about in expensive-looking dresses and lingerie, mezzo-soprano Allison Cook had a bit of a Wallis Simpson look and created an uninhibited portrait of the Duchess, her voice soaring, choking and snickering.
Soprano Nili Riemer was the Maid, who transformed into a rubbernecker at the trial and a journalist. She provided spunk and spark — and must have been exhausted by the end of the night from repeatedly bouncing on a bed as if it were a trampoline.
Bass Matt Boehler sang the Hotel Manager, who also becomes the Duke and a rubbernecker and the stiff-and- shocked judge, injecting a sense of gravitas. And tenor William Ferguson sang the Electrician, who becomes the somewhat but not-so-shocked Waiter.
Scheib's production features simple furniture by Marsha Ginsburg on an airy set, with trees interspersed during the latter scenes. There were fashionable costumes by Alba Clemente, and the staging made prominent use of projections by Josh Higgason and video shot on stage by Chelsey Blackmon.
And there were the 22 nude men, billed as a "Corps of Lovers," at least one of whom did a handstand.
The opening at BAM, where "Powder" received a semi-staged U.S. premiere in 1998 at what now is called the Harvey Theater, was part of a run of four performances through Feb. 23, and NYCO's season continues with Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" at BAM from Feb. 24-March 2. The company then returns to City Center in Manhattan, its home from 1944-65, to conclude its 16-performance season with Rossini's "Mose in Egitto (Moses in Egypt)" (April 14-20) and Offenbach's "La Perichole" (April 21-27).
For dauntlessness, it will be hard to top "Powder."
"Could you not have pity for me?" the Duchess sings just before the final note. At the final curtain, after all the nudity and debauchery, the audience seemed dazed before giving warm applause to the cast, conductor Jonathan Stockhammer and the composer.
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