Powder Her Face
Duchess Mary Plazas
Maid / Confidante / Waitress / Mistress / Society Journalist Valdine Anderson
Electrician / Lounge Lizard / Waiter Daniel Norman
Duke / Judge / Hotel Manager Stephen Richardson
Members of the London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 8 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Few operas in recent years have caused a stir comparable to Thomas Adès’s “Powder Her Face” on its premiere at the Almeida Theatre eleven years ago. Several productions and revivals later, and a recording, it arrived at the Barbican Hall for a concert airing (a taster for the Adès retrospective to be given there later this year) and confirming the piece as a highpoint of post-war music-theatre – not just on account of its all-round dramatic flair, but also through the pathos to have emerged as the opera has matured with age.
Central to this feeling of deepened stature is the performance of Mary Plazas as the Duchess: a role based directly on the outsize personality of Margaret Whigham – who, in her second marriage as the Duchess of Argyll, pursued a hedonistic lifestyle that might have been considered scandalous even from a present perspective, and whose subsequent divorce in 1963 by the hardly monogamist Duke led to a damning indictment by the judge of a one-sidedness that would seem laughable today. To be sure, Plazas is aware of the Duchess’s essential immorality – whether her unabashed desire to marry into money after her first divorce, or her hotel-room seduction of the Waiter out of sheer boredom. Yet there is an underlying sense of a woman only as wanton as her social context allows her be – and who is as much, if not more, the victim of her own machinations when that society calls for its due.
Plazas encompasses these qualities and also assumes an impressive gravitas when, after the judge’s tirade, she defends her moral conduct with a previously unsuspected integrity. Then, in the last two scenes, she engages the audience’s sympathy as she descends steadily if unwittingly into caricature – before the final humiliation of a near-bankrupt being evicted from her hotel suite in the face of a blithely unconcerned manager. An impressive performance, made more so by the eloquence Plazas invests in Adès’s melodic writing – deceptively unassuming in the way that it increasingly informs her character – and making hers the yardstick by which future such portrayals will have to be measured.
The remaining parts never escape from their intended function as stereotypes of human behaviour, but are no less engaging for that. Valdine Anderson retains the soubrette qualities needed to project the Maid and her various air-headed personages with the artificial brilliance necessary – though, even allowing for limitations imposed by the vocal writing, her clarity of diction seemed strangely lacking this time round, making it difficult to form even a cursory opinion of her characters when what was sung was apparent only from surtitles.
No such problem with Daniel Norman – as boorish an Electricianas he was obsequious a Lounge-Lizard or as coolly detached a Waiter, all the while throwing light onto the Duchess’s vulnerability as her recklessness assumes ever greater control of her actions.
Stephen Richardson was mightily impressive as the Duke – a facade of human authority moving with seamless conviction into that of the Judge; his climactic outburst is one of the great cameos in modern opera, and his final incarnation as the Hotel Manager found his ‘grim reaper’ undertones tellingly conveyed.
Although scored for only modest forces, the instrumental writing is as virtuoso as it is packed with musical and theatrical allusions – all the while moving at a pace rarely less than rapid. Taking the helm as he has so often done, Thomas Adès secured playing of no mean flair and immediacy from members of the London Symphony Orchestra – alive to the timbral subtleties without forgetting that this is music illustrative of actions and emotions above all else. Amplified, though not unreasonably so, the voices had little problem projecting over the ensemble, while surtitles ensured that little of consequence was lost from Philip Hensher’s libretto. Too self-conscious in its stylisation to be genuinely witty, this is nonetheless an effective framework in which to place events and point their consequences with finely judged irony. That Hensher does not appear to have penned another is a matter for some regret.
Indeed, the brilliance – both in its ideas and in their execution – of Adès’s score is such as to make one wonder if he can again equal its dramatic potency. The succumbing of his second opera, “The Tempest”, to an institutionalised conception of what British Opera should be, indicated only too clearly the dangers now facing a composer who ought to be taking the genre in new and provocative directions.