Opera for Our Time
When Thomas Adès’s chamber opera Powder Her Face first premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 1995, it confirmed the appearance of a major new talent on the contemporary music scene. Composed at the astonishingly young age of 24, the opera examines the downfall of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, whose famous divorce case of 1963 (the same year as the Profumo affair) was the subject of intense press interest and salacious gossip that rocked the British establishment. The libretto written by Philip Hensher was unprecedented in the world of opera for its graphic depiction of sex and sleaze while Adès, deploying the full range of his inventive technique, worked in perfect tandem, delivering a sensuously subversive score that incorporated everything from stretched Piazzolla-like tangos and deformed Cole Porter songs to echoes of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress all of which are overlaid with the composer’s intricate orchestration.
Although Powder Her Face has received regular performances since its premiere, the aspect that was most intriguing about this particular production was its timing. In the current context of the #MeToo movement and the wider discussions of female empowerment in society generally, it’s almost difficult not to see the Duchess as a kind of operatic anti-heroine, a sexual rebel whose appetite for erotic experience challenged the stale Victorian hypocrisy of 1960s British upper class society that dictated one code of morals for men and another for women. Her divorce trial and subsequent condemnation as ‘a women who has no scruples, and the morals of a bedpost’ strikes us as particularly unjust when compared to what the Duke himself is up to in the previous scene where his seemingly all-too-young mistress asks ‘Is Daddy too squiffy for jumpies?’.
Daire Halpin and Stephen Richardson (Image: Pat Redmond)
What perhaps prevents us from seeing her in this light is the sheer vanity of her character. This is a woman whose sense of self-entitlement is staggering and whose bigoted outlook is exposed in the penultimate interview scene where she rants and raves that these days ‘Black men buy houses. Jews go everywhere. Concrete is everywhere. Buggery is legal.’ As with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s similarly compromised Anna Nicole, this outburst mitigates our capacity to fully empathise with her character, and the final scene, which portrays her as isolated, penniless and facing eviction from her hotel room while simultaneously pining for her childhood nursemaid, comes across as less successful in terms of fully realising the tragic dimension.
Push an envelope
Despite Adès’s contention that even ‘even horrible people are tragic’, it seems highly likely that both he and Hensher viewed the Duchess’s ‘tragedy’ primarily as a vehicle through which they could drive an axe into the kind of complacency and double-standards that accompany the worse excesses of British upper-class elitism. This subversive streak that runs through virtually every scene of Powder Her Face was a gift to an imaginative director like Antony McDonald.
A sworn foe of the all too frequent sight in opera of singing statues, McDonald brought his trademark athleticism and wit to this production. There was constant movement about the stage with bodies wriggling, squirming and writhing in perfect synchrony with Adès’s suggestive rhythms regardless of whether they were in a vertical or horizontal position. The use of hand-held props as sex toys in certain scenes was inspired: a loaded shotgun for the Duke, a stuffed dog and whip for the Duchess and a ping-pong bat for the Duke’s mistress. In addition, McDonald wasn’t afraid to push an envelope of his own by having the Judge masturbate over the details of the case while delivering his damning verdict and having the infantile Duke wrapped up in a nappy by his mistress.
Stephen Richardson (Image: Pat Redmond)
Every member of the cast rose admirably to the task of combining these directions with the formidable challenge of singing Adès’s demanding vocal lines. Daire Halpin was brilliantly coquettish in the variety of mischievous roles that her part involved with the choreographed routines between herself and Adrian Dwyer at the beginning and ending of the opera being especially first rate. Mary Plazas, who has a wealth of experience playing the Duchess, showed no signs of a diminished appetite in negotiating the unique requirements of this role while there are few basses able to bring off the hilariously grotesque figures of the Duke and Judge better than Stephen Richardson. Indeed Adès’s musical characterisation of the Judge bears more than a passing resemblance to another operatic upholder of the law, the ghastly magistrate Sir Joshua Cramer from Gerald Barry’s The Intelligence Park which Richardson has also sung.
Precision and concentration
For all the on-stage comedy, this is intensely difficult music to perform, requiring a level of rhythmic precision and concentration that would mercilessly expose a less cohesive band and full credit is due to the 15-member ensemble under the direction of Timothy Redmond who kept the pace moving throughout. Their task wasn’t made any easier by the venue – the O’Reilly Theatre in Belvedere College – which was totally unsuitable for an opera that relies on plentiful contributions from the brass and therefore needs a pit to absorb some of the excess. Thus the balance suffered and for some parts of the opera, the singers were almost drowned out. Doubtlessly financial constraints forced this choice of venue and the imbalance may not have been an issue in the other venues on the tour but it did put a minor damper on an otherwise flawless performance. These petty grumblings aside, this production, Irish National Opera’s first, constitutes a solid start for the fledgling opera company and if this quality can be maintained, Irish audiences will have a lot to look forward to in the coming season.
Published on 14 March 2018
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.