The Dirty Duchess

The Skylight offers a brazen musical tour through a notorious episode in the British tabloids.

You may love Lucia or prefer I Puritani, but you’ve probably never seen or heard a mad scene quite like The Duchess’s “interview” late in Thomas Adès’ Powder Her FaceSeven years after a scandalous divorce trial, a society journalist has come to interview the Duchess of Argyll, flattering her first by calling her “a great reminder of a glorious society.” But as she asks about and records the Duchess’s “beauty secrets,” the Duchess launches into a tirade about London society, complaining about everything from concrete architecture to the lack of white faces on the street.

It’s a daring, very postmodern move by Adès and his librettist Philip Hensher, because it’s another zag in the zig-zagging sympathies one feels for the Duchess, a character based on the real-life Margaret Campbell, whose 1963 divorce was the toast of the London tabloids. And it’s just one of the high-wire acts executed flawlessly in the Skylight Theater’s new production of Powder Her Face, which opened this weekend.

Cassandra Black Photo by Mark Frohna
Cassandra Black. Photo by Mark Frohna.

When we first meet the Duchess (Cassandra Black), it’s via the mockery of her hotel maid and an electrician who is repairing her teakettle. By now, she is a laughingstock of London, and when she enters to observe her “lessers” making sport of her, she eases into a reverie that takes us back to various episodes in her story—her debutante “coming out” in 1930, her celebrity as a fashion icon, and, yes, the sexual exploits that eventually ended her marriage and made her infamous.

Adès and Hensher spin this story with eye toward modern celebrity culture. The shriek and cackle of the gossipy masses become the crazed angular melody lines of that first scene (Kaleigh Rae Gamaché handles the leaps and precisely tuned giggles with great dexterity). The pretentious (and hypocritical) divorce decree, in which a judge (the booming but nimble bass-baritone Joseph Beutel) condemns the Duchess as a “beast,” with “the morals of a bed-post,” just after we’ve seen the Duke (also Beutel) cavorting with his own mistress. And in between, we see some of the Duchess’s notorious sexual exploits, including an assignation with a hotel steward (the expressive tenor Benjamin Robinson).

Director Robin Guarino places the story in an intimate, picture-framed stage (set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro, lighting by Carrie Cavins) that never lets us leave the Duchess’s world (it also might be a sly reference to the “selfies” the Duchess took of her various trysts, which were revealed at her divorce trial). As remote and regal as the Duchess seems, insisting that she is above the English fray, Guarino helps see her as a human being—flawed to be sure, but also a pathetic polestar for a culture’s recreational calumny. Cassandra Black’s remarkable performance walks that tightrope perfectly. Like all the singers, she negotiates the challenging music with assurance, but also creates a palpable presence—you simply can’t take your eyes off her.

Powder Her Face’s modern sensibilities call for a “modern” musical vocabulary, and Viswa Subbaraman and a 13-piece ensemble make the most of a challenging score. Adès—he was only 23 when he started work on the opera—clearly wanted to make his musical mark here, and he does so with a creative irreverence that both expressionist and joyful. He loves his reeds—everything from whistley clarinets to foghorn blasts on bass saxophone—and he uses sultry glissandos and jazzy rhythms to shroud the action in an erotic fog. A sensitive accompanist, Subbaraman allows the voices to march along with a rhythmic drive, even as Adès orchestrations burble along beneath them. It’s a fleet, furious and ultimately touching, an affecting tour through a culture at its most catty, mercenary and unforgiving.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.