|Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll|
Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Jay Scheib's production deliberately pushes motifs of the drama--voyeurism, exploitation, and discrimination--to their extreme. Scheib has scenes of sexual violence bookend the opera, suggesting that the duchess' attempts at sexual independence would be viewed as always doomed. The appearance of the Duchess' lovers on stage could have been tragically grotesque, but was greeted by audience with laughter, and frankly, the gradual emergence of the men from their various places of concealment had more of the Marx Brothers than Macbeth about it. It could have been claustrophobic or celebratory; but I felt it was neither. Still, the production was often interesting, if less nuanced than the opera itself. Overlapping scenes with dissolving walls or misplaced elements mirrored the disorder of the duchess' memories. The conflation of figures (called for in the libretto) was effective especially in case of the hotel manager/duke/judge. The nature of his apparition in his last scene called to mind Mephistopheles, and the words he is given could belong to Death himself. The production's oppressive use of video accused the audience of unequivocal complicity in treating the Duchess as scandal; an exaggerated effect, but better than complacency. One of my reservations about the production was that it seemed less ready than the opera to acknowledge fearlessly the many forms of female sexual desire. And it is the Duchess' desires that are the unforgivably scandalous fact brought before the court of law in Act II (in this production, a man performs oral sex on the judge as he gives sentence.) What I, listening to the recording, had recognized as (or assumed to be) the maid's approach to sexual climax was converted by the production into childish jumping on a bed. As for the Duchess, her emotional starvation and insecurity were emphasized, I thought, to the detriment of the complex, tragic, flawed figure created by score and libretto.
William Ferguson proved ably protean as the Electrician and Lounge Lizard. The vocal demands of the Maid are strenuous, and Nili Riemer handled the coloratura (and the diction) impressively. I didn't get much of a sense of the character's individuality, but that might be a directorial choice. As the Duchess, Allison Cook was nothing less than superb. A compelling presence at all times, she handled the vocal and dramatic demands of the role stylishly and with apparent fearlessness. Again and again I was impressed by the timing of her gestures and utterances, the nuance which she brought to the expression of an elaborately constructed personality. Cook managed to be at once pitiable and commanding as she negotiated a path through her own history, until the last of her delusions was stripped, leaving her with only bitter truths about society and herself. It's not a pretty picture.