Monday, February 25, 2013

Powder Her Face

The expression “Where’s the Beef” was made famous by Wendy’s. In the New York City Opera production of Thomas Ades and Phillip Henscher’s Powder Her Face, which recently played at BAM, the promiscuous Duchess of Argyll (mezzo-soprano Alison Cook) calls out “I want some beef…bring me meat…fill me up...anything you have.” The humor lies in the fact that her luxurious hotel suite is filled with naked men, though it’s the room service waiter who is the recipient of the blow job. If nothing else Powder Her Face makes up for an imbalanced and unfair condition where more female actresses take off their clothes on stage and film than men. In one scene the creators of the opera have created a parity. And while, the homoerotic scene is more reminiscent of Eakins’ famous painting “The Swimming Hole" than of a fast food joint, the subject of the opera derives from another piece of mass culture, tabloid journalism. Powder Her Face, on the one hand, seems to exist for the mise en scene. It’s an exercise in style and is the latest in a number of BAM productions (Cries and Whispers, Roman Tragedies, House/Divided) which employ video as part of its dramatic palette. Yet there’s something unsettling that’s hard to totally get one’s hands around. Call it Look Back in Anger in reverse. Old fashioned class warfare is the lingua franca of the opera. Lady Argyll’s maid, played both lubriciously and aerobically by Nili Riemer in an iconic red wig, dreams only of wealth while Margaret Campbell, the duchess, is the rich man’s Jimmy Porter; her lurid sexuality makes her an easy target for the middle class who end up dispossessing her of her title and her wealth. So despite all the irony Powder Her Face conforms to one of the tenets of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, the “fall from grace” of a person of “high status.”  

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