The big guys had their Verdi last week: the Music Center‘s La Traviata ending its run (not a moment too soon!) at one end of I-405; Opera Pacific’s Rigoletto starting its shorter run (in happier estate) at the other. Midway there was the little opera company that could (and did): Michael Milenski‘s undauntable Long Beach Opera, fearlessly striding through the kitsch and commotion of Thomas Ades’ Powder Her Face, emerging triumphant beyond all hopes and expectations. One performance remains as these words reach you, Sunday the 18th at 2 p.m. in a 250-seat space at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach; I urge you to beg, borrow or steal your way in.

Powder Her Face is pure brat — Brit brat at that: music and drama that could only cascade from the creative mind of the preternaturally gifted 24-year-old its composer was at its time. In one sense its Duchess of Argyll belongs to the great operatic-monster tradition, from Mozart‘s Queen of the Night to Strauss’ Elektra and Berg‘s Lulu. Unlike them, however, the owner of this powdered face, memorably captured in Philip Hensher’s libretto, is a creature out of yesterday‘s headlines. Unlike them, too, both librettist and composer have filled out this monstrosity with something you could almost mistake for human dimensions.

Scotland’s Margaret Whigham (1912– 1993) became Margaret Sweeny (the Mrs. Sweeny cataloged in Cole Porter‘s “You’re the Top”) in her first marriage, and Duchess of Argyll in her second. As such, she passed a colorful lifetime fornicating her way upward through London‘s nobility and downward through its working classes into eventual penniless ignominy. (Apparently the Duke succeeded in matching her trick for trick.) With a command of musical coloration that borders on the awesome, Ades shakes this tragic, horrendous sacred monster into violent, brimming life. His music has a captivating insolent slanginess; it captures her vile, lethal breath and blends it into a range of perfumes both ethereal and stinkpot.

Neal Stulberg’s expert small orchestra — winds and percussion mostly, with occasional strings just for a touch of the slinky — worms its way in and out of the fetid atmosphere around its central character. Much of the score is beholden to the language of tango at its rudest, down-and-dirtiest. Four singers — impersonating many more characters — carry the action breathlessly forward: hotel bellhops eagerly available, chambermaids, hangers-on giggling with the latest gossip, servicing the Duchess‘ amorous needs and occasionally being serviced in return. As the Duchess, Irena Sylya’s management of Hensher‘s fleet, intricate declamation is only approximate, but the venom is vividly apparent even so. The opera’s two hours race by like the wind.

Some of my happiest Long Beach Opera memories concern the way its several stage directors have employed empty space: a flat stage floor ringed with TV monitors for Britten‘s Death in Venice; more empty space for the Mediterranean that Monteverdi’s Ulysses must cross. Long Beach‘s Powder Her Face — in its first American professional staging, by the way, after concert-style performances in Brooklyn and Berkeley — is ingeniously (if not exactly comfortably) set on a blocked-off area on the Carpenter stage, with the audience on bleachers on one side. Director David Schweizer fills the empty spaces with spooky dancing shadows. A mobile, glass-enclosed booth stands in the middle of nowhere, pushed here and there, a jeweled, cluttered museum showcase, perhaps, with the Duchess inside, possibly dead but also poisonously alive. One bellhop (James Schaffner) catches her eye, and proves a considerable mouthful. High above the action, perched atop a towering ladder up near God, a judge (the stentorian Donald Sherrill) sends down thunderbolts of condemnation. A journalist (Catherine Ireland in one of her five roles) pries into secrets and confessions. “I go to bed early,” the Duchess informs her, “and often.”

If Rigoletto isn’t broken, why does everybody try to fix it? For an opera so perfectly proportioned, its dramatic unfolding so devastating, its fund of deep, disturbed humanness so keenly set forth, the history of maltreatments ventured upon Verdi‘s first operatic masterpiece makes for a rather depressing bundle. Bruce Beresford’s Hollywoodized recasting, imposed upon the L.A. Opera two seasons ago and now up for revival on the San Diego Opera‘s agenda come January, may be the most blatant perversion yet to come down the pike, but it hardly stands alone; the English National Opera’s famous rewrite job, in English and set among lower-Manhattan Mafiosi, was still available on video the last time I looked.

Opera Pacific‘s new Rigoletto arrives from Sydney’s Opera Australia. First the good news: Almost all of the traditional cuts have been opened, with only the second verse of the Duke‘s “Possente amor” excised; the performance I heard, with the first of the two alternating casts, was close to first-rate — riding on the shoulders (strong and getting stronger) of John DeMain’s conducting; it was given, as the composer intended, in three acts, not the four that ruin dramatic continuity.

Elijah Moshinsky‘s production, with sets and costumes by Michael Yeargan, moves the action up to a time vaguely present, which gives us the Mantuan courtesans in tux and sunglasses dancing Verdi’s elegant minuet — and with the dance band not onstage as prescribed but in the pit. Rigoletto and Gilda sing their sad first duet at a kitchen table with red-checked cloth, in a tidy suburban house. Sparafucile‘s tavern is your basic American waterfront dive, at which Rigoletto and Gilda arrive by small car, probably a Rent-a-Wreck Fiat. The result, as is the case far more often than not, does nothing to clarify the story or bring it any closer; on the contrary, it comes off as a ridiculous confusion of tongues.

Christopher Robertson, the Rigoletto, was singing through an announced cold but sounded fine, nicely resonant and far more at ease than as San Francisco’s Arshak II, which we both suffered through in September. Elena Kelessidi was the pert, diminutive Gilda, and Andrew Richards, the Duke, looked for once like the handsome tenor his music attempts to embody and seldom does.

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