Powder Her Face is an arrogant young man’s masterpiece, fearless and forthright. Its central character — the decrepit, decaying Duchess of Argyle, fornicating her way toward oblivion — is one in a grand line of operatic monsters from Amneris, say, to Lulu. Its creator — the formidable Brit Brat Thomas Adès, at 24 — might also be accorded a place in a grand procession of the classically omnipotent, from the fire-wielding Prometheus of ancient times to Citizen Kane and, for that matter and closer to our own time, his creator, Orson Welles. It is nine years since Powder Her Face, and Tom Adès rides ever higher.
He is charming, when we chat, in his dismissal of Powder as a work from his giddy youth, still only best known through the easy sensationalism of being the first ever opera with a blowjob onstage. He likes to wonder aloud, with typical Brit whimsy, why anyone today takes the work seriously. Defying the possible wrath of parents and trustees, the coproduction last weekend by USC’s Thornton Opera and the L.A. Philharmonic, staged by Ken Cazan and conducted by the composer with an excellent orchestra and a group of gifted student singers, revealed, as all good performances have, that this is indeed a work of lasting strength and originality. If the staging lacked some of the madcap genius of David Schweizer’s Long Beach Opera production from 2001, it represented good, honest stagecraft and made no bones about the work’s less, er, family-fare elements.
The strengths of Powder Her Face outrun its notorious aspects; they lie in Adès’ remarkably canny music. I do not foresee an independent concert life for very much of the music (aside from one nifty song for the Waitress, “Fancy being rich . . . Fancy purchasing a duke!,” that tags her as a blood cousin of Kurt Weill’s Pirate Jenny), but the mix of nowadays-pop sensibility, liberally laced with some X-rated tango slither, accomplishes some highly potent storytelling. Adès is particularly adept at this kind of narrative, with or without words. On December 2 and 3, his orchestral masterpiece (so far), Asyla, is paired at the Philharmonic with Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony, and even though neither work follows a specified narration, both have a program deeply instilled. Be prepared, therefore, for more than just another soiree at Disney Hall.
Adès is here for several events — including a “Green Umbrella” on November 28, at which he will conduct music by his friend Gerald Barry, and a varied program with “Piano Spheres” on December 5. I have the feeling that he likes it here; who knows where that may lead?
Sharing the weekend, most appropriately, was the G-major String Quartet of Franz Schubert, music by another restless spirit in his 20s, no less fearless and forthright. Its opening gambit flings down the challenge: a welcoming chord in G major that swells and bursts into G minor. That sets the tone for the entire work, an instability of major versus minor that permeates all four movements, each in a different manner, and seems on its own to pronounce the death knell of classical stability and balance. There is a miraculous moment later in that first movement, when that opening sequence returns but exactly in reverse: the G-minor chord swelling out to G major, and all, this time, absolutely pianissimo. I wrote last week about music’s great “What hit me?” moments; this is another.
I heard the Schubert, along with quartets of Schumann and Lutoslawski, in the beguiling setting of the Clark Memorial Library in West Adams, where there is chamber music once a month, with tickets trickily distributed on a lottery system. The players were the excellent Vogler Quartet from Berlin, which had also performed in the Doheny Mansion at one of the “Historic Sites” programs two nights before. The room, wood-paneled and with a gorgeous, intricate ceiling, seats a modest 141, which makes it small for chamber music; I found the sound aggressive, sometimes even shrill (likewise MC Peter Reill). I’d like to hear a harpsichord and baroque instruments there.
The peripatetic Long Beach Opera dropped in at the Japan America Theatre last weekend for the latest stop in its yearlong wanderings through operatic curiosities. This item bore names worth noting: composer Philip Glass and his ofttime collaborator playwright David Henry Hwang, whose previous works include such major-league thumpings as The Voyage, the Metropolitan Opera’s big Columbus fiasco. This latest effort, produced with most of the original perpetrators from its American Repertory Theatre premiere in 2003, thumped to a more modest rhythm, but made for a dreary evening nonetheless. “First Philip Glass opera to be staged in L.A.,” screamed the publicity, which is not quite accurate if you remember the 1988 1000 Airplanes on the Roof at UCLA; call it, at least, the first Philip Glass opera to be staged here at a $98 ticket.
The matter at hand was a bill of two short plays, drawn by Hwang from Japanese ghost stories and given the dual title Sound of a Voice/Hotel of Dreams: the first set in ancient times and dealing with a samurai-ghost encounter in the manner of Woman in the Dunes; the second a modern fantasy about a bordello for men at the brink of death. For both, Glass has provided a musical underpinning so thin and aimless that it becomes difficult to identify as a melodic line. Now and then, a short burst from pipa or shakuhachi serves to pin down the ethnic identity, as did conductor Andreas Mitisek’s courageous management of this threadbare substance.
Two singers were involved, both from the original production. Suzan Hanson was the ghost in the first play, the all-knowing Madam in the second. Herbert Perry (the Leporello in the Peter Sellars Don Giovanni of fabled memory) made the switch from samurai to suited businessman. Both sang with force, but in an acoustical setting that tended to swallow words — a serious problem, since the supertitle projector conked out early in the evening. Robert Israel, stalwart stage designer of the Glass entourage, provided his usual — well, stalwart — set design, consisting mainly, in both plays, of a large, empty box. And “empty” was, indeed, the word.