My Year of Opera 17: Powder Her Face

Like there are multiple DVDs of this piece? I was glad there was one! I heard the work when it first made waves back in the late 90s and really didn’t connect with it. And this opera doesn’t really work as a purely auditory experience; scored for 4 singers three of which sing multiple parts (only Mary Plazas stayed fixed in her role as the Duchess). This DVD isn’t a staged performance it is a full-on movie. I’ve only seen one other staged movie of an opera (Verdi’s Otello) and I didn’t think it worked very well. With Powder Her Face it worked extremely well. It is almost necessary (especially after seeing some clips of a staging of it). The way that the character relationships change from scene to scene make almost no audible sense. Seeing the characters in different settings with different costumes (and done in a high quality way that couldn’t really be reproduced on stage) was absolutely vital. I think THIS is the way to experience this particular opera.

I’ve had a real hard time connecting to Adès’ music. It has been brought out a few times as “important stuff to listen to!” and “look what a great young composer he is!” and such. His music has never made a huge impression on me. It is always cleverly orchestrated but I couldn’t get anything past that. When I encounter music that I “don’t get” I usually put it on the back burner of my mind and try listening to it again. At some point, something usually clicks and even if I don’t like the music I have a sense of why the composer was doing what he/she was doing.

Having said all that, when I found there was a DVD to this piece I knew I had to see it. I think the case of Adès using popular  music is drastically overstated. Yes, it is sort of present some of the time. What I liked was how he got such great colors from a small number of performing forces. And some of the best “sound effects” moments came with knocking on doors, the masturbation scene, the seduction/bathroom blowjob scene (which was about as graphic as you could possibly make it without going into actual pornography — and now all the CMU students will race to the library to check out this DVD), etc. I also found the repetition of the word “Madam” very clever. It was a punctuation in the libretto that worked quite well.

At first, I didn’t really care about the characters. I figured maybe it would have made more sense if I was British and had that royalty stuff more in my cultural mindset. Nope. As the opera went along I found the Duchess to be a very sympathetic character (like Anna Nicole, hey, didn’t I just say that?).

The soprano part is a killer. The maid/friend/maid/lover part has some freakishly high stuff in it. But the aria “Fancy” was one of my favorite musical moments. And the way Adès makes the chamber orchestra sound like a phonograph at the end? Brilliant.

The DVD also had an hour-long documentary about Adès which I watched. I feared that it was going to be obsequious and precious but I was wrong. His music makes a LOT more sense to me know after I watched it. Adès is an introvert. The only person his music needs to make any sense to is himself. I spend a lot of time around extrovert composers who collaborate with lots of people, have outgoing personalities (personally and musically) and are interested in engaging lots of people. Adès is not concerned with these things. I can understand his music quite a bit more with that in mind.

I also found out I can rent his opera The Tempest from the MET website. I will do so and report back.

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