Saturday, March 02, 2013

The petty zoo

Powder Her Face - New York City Opera, 2/17/2013
Cook, Riemer, Ferguson, Boehler / Stockhammer

Perhaps it was chosen because it could be done with a small contingent of musicians -- four singers and chamber orchestra (assisted by two actors, and a gaggle of naked extras) -- and because it fed off the publicity from the Met's Thomas Ades production, this NYCO production of Ades' first opera was certainly interested and well-executed enough. If only the show had more to it...

Not to say it's poorly composed or constructed. In fact, the biggest take-away is how little Ades evolved from this opera's 1995 debut to the premiere of The Tempest almost a decade later. Yes, he of course became more fluent in his virtuosic school-of-Berg handling of texture, color, and ever-more-complex forces, but aesthetically he's remained who he fully was in 1995: a modernist out of time, with a great musical palette for absurdity and compulsion and force but little facility for the humane side of existence. Only his librettists' aims changed.

Philip Henscher, whether by choice or happy coincidence, seems to have tailored his libretto for Powder Her Face to the composer's strengths. So we get -- well, basically, Lulu's human zoo: lust, greed, envy, jealousy, moral posturing... But even in '95 it was many decades too late to take these modernist tropes wholly seriously the way Berg did, and so instead of tragedy we're left with literal emptiness: the Duchess is evicted, and though there's a space here where Ades might have written an emotional climax to sum or contrast or enlarge the parade of petty-compulsive humanity that's passed, no such thing comes. It's perfect, in its way, but nihilistically so.

Meredith Oakes, librettist for the Tempest asked for more -- for deep love and wrath and repentance and forgiveness -- but it was precisely in these human elements that Ades could not deliver proper sonic expression. It's the inhuman island in the background and its spirits that have his full attention: the human stuff is dutifully turned to as it comes, but carries little of the charge the Shakespearean situations demand.

So more praise to Oakes for writing the more satisfying libretto, or to Henscher for writing the one more fit for Ades? I'm not sure. But neither opera satisfies.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.