The Duchess is fabulous - the opera is, too

Sometimes the thing of greatest substance has a way of sneaking into the room unnoticed. This is especially true when you're being distracted by a hirsute figure in drag, or minor royalty of the nymphomaniacal variety swooping about in haute couture.

Friday night at the Perelman Theater, Opera Philadelphia pulled off its greatest piece of work this season, and perhaps in several seasons, with a gorgeously sung and smartly crafted production of Thomas Adès' Powder Her Face. Director William Kerley knew there was already enough camp and melodrama built into the unraveling of 20th century tabloid fixture Margaret, Duchess of Argyll without boldfacing its drama in hot-pink neon. More critical to making this piece the lurid masterpiece it is are the cartoons and grotesques in the score. With only 17 musicians in the pit, Adès has enough confidence in his listener to be constantly turning on a dime. If there is one stylistic rule to our time - in film, literature, architecture and music - it is that the idea that a ruling aesthetic is no more. Pluralism reigns. Composers have argued as much for decades, but surely no one has done so as emphatically, and so beautifully within the framework of single pieces, as Adès.

Patricia Schuman as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

Powder Her Face was premiered 18 years ago, and yet its cascading pastiche now seems only more a product of our time. Any musical quote (some are vague, others overt) can and will be referenced to make a point. Adès comes up with a gloriously understated musical punch line at the conclusion of the most notoriously graphic sex act in modern opera: when the deed is done, lust doesn’t lean back sated; with the soft pop of a harp, it passes like a tiny iridescent bubble.

With a text by Philip Hensher, the opera’s lead character belies easy categorization. In mid-20th-Century press, Margaret, Duchess of Argyle may have been reduced to simply notorious. In the daylight of opera, she is that and a great deal more; less Kim Kardashian than Norma Desmond, her regal mien goes untouched by the reality of her crumbling circumstances – at least for a time. Remember, ladies, getting evicted doesn't allow one to shirk one’s obligation to look fabulous. Patricia Schuman was a late addition to the cast, learning Margaret just a few weeks before the first rehearsal, and yet she met the part as if destiny. Hers is a voice with range – not only the notes, but also an edge that she deployed to become more domineering, haughty or vulnerable.

The orchestra, led by Corrado Rovaris, struggled at times for total mastery of a score with some unusual challenges. Except for the Duchess, everyone in the production is asked to double; moving through the decades, four singers handle seventeen parts, and each colored the differences with a startling spectrum of vocal characterizations. Tenor Christopher Tiesi (a May Curtis Institute of Music graduate) shed and gained innocence or world-weariness with each passing scene, but was especially impressive as a 1930s lounge lizard. Bass Ben Wager was an unlikable Duke, which is as it should be, his deep hypocrisy jiggling like Falstaff. In a scene from 1970, lithe soprano Ashley Emerson is a society writer peppering the Duchess with vapid questions, managing to be superficial even as she looks down her nose at her interview subject.

Schuman doesn’t change roles, except to the extent that she steers Margaret’s evolution from a steely woman who cares not what the world thinks of her, to a needy has-been who comes upon the realization that the only society she’s ever enjoyed is that for which she has paid, and finally a tired embodiment of the idea that everything in the world used to be better – including, perhaps, all the music in it.