The Royal Opera – Powder Her Face

Powder Her Face, Op.14 – Chamber opera in two acts to a libretto by Philip Hensher

Duchess – Joan Rodgers
Hotel Manager / Duke / Judge – Alan Ewing
Maid / Confidante / Waitress / Mistress / Rubbernecker / Society Journalist – Rebecca Bottone
Electrician / Lounge Lizard / Waiter / Rubbernecker / Delivery Boy – Iain Paton
Actor – Tom Baert

Members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and Guest Artists
Timothy Redmond

Carlos Wagner – Director
Conor Murphy – Designs
Paul Keogan – Lighting Design
Choreographer – Tom Baert

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 26 April, 2010
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Iain Paton as Waiter & Joan Rodgers as Duchess. Photograph: Bill CooperIt’s hard to believe that Thomas Adès’s shock opera is now 15 years old, and the passage of time has served “Powder Her Face” very well, far better than it did the notorious Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Adès’s audacious, precocious brilliance – he was a mere 24 in 1995 – was much written about at the time, and there were some misgivings over Adès and his “blow-job opera” being too clever by half.

What this first revival of Carlos Wagner’s 2008 staging demonstrates is how securely the opera holds its own (so to speak!), especially in the light of subsequent music, and in particular his much bigger opera based on “The Tempest”. There is certainly an element of showing off in the way that Adès parades a legion of musical influences, and the fellatio (evoking fond memories of The Rocky Horror Show) was only ever there to shock. But the way he folds the influences and quotations into his score is superbly and tactfully done – even if the music for orchestra ends up being more interesting than the music for voice – particularly the lazy, erotic tango music so redolent of one’s parents trying to be sexy and a bit daring in the 1950s. The way in which Adès isolates the bump-and-grind element of the tango to make its own unmistakable, grunting point gave great pleasure. Above all, though, “Powder her Face” is real theatre music, rarer than you might think, and is a considerable achievement.

Rebecca Bottone as Mistress & Alan Ewing as Duke. Photograph: Bill CooperCarlos Wagner’s staging leaves you in no doubt about the downfall of the Duchess, with Conor Murphy’s set of a sweeping staircase providing a clear metaphor. The giant powder compact, lipstick and eye-liner speak volumes about the mystique of feminine allure – the designs may be a bit too stylised for some tastes, but they fit the Duchess’s over-the-top story like a glove. And as for the unspeakable sex-act itself, the naked young man, an unattainable fantasy sex-object erupting out of the Duchess’s sub-conscious, is very much to the point – as any highly motivated seeker after love will confirm.

Joan Rodgers gets something truthful and tragic out of the Duchess. She completely understands where the composer and his librettist Philip Hensher are coming from in terms of the sensibility of their outlandish, outsider tragedy queen, but she also manages to suggest the utterly conventional, totally bored, affection-free reality. Hensher’s libretto makes that aspect of the role much clearer, but most of the words were inaudible – and those that could be heard left you, a bit like the Duchess, gagging for more. It was very frustrating, and slightly undermined the grandeur of Joan Rodgers’s commanding performance, full of hauteur, desperation and tristesse.

Rebecca Bottone was every above-the-stage inch the Helden-soubrette Adès calls for in her various roles, an astonishing, high-energy performance; and Iain Paton, the object of the Duchess’s perfunctory lust, multi-tasked with the same tireless versatility. Alan Ewing pleaded a throat infection, but it didn’t affect his baleful performance as the Judge, and the doom-laden presence of his Hotel Manager owed a lot to Britten’s “Death in Venice”. The orchestral playing and Timothy Redmond’s conducting were amazingly quick off the mark with Adès’s hugely skilful mixture of reference, pastiche and parody, and special mention should go to the wonderful tango accordionist, Eva Zöllner – tired, wheezy, a bit murky. A bit like life, really.

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