Written in 1995, Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face has been misconstrued from day one! The librettist Philip Hensher based the story on his faint recollections of the real life of the Duchess of Argyll, but his only intention was to generate an effective opera and he had no interest in presenting an accurate historical portrait. His central figure was thus a mythical creation, but the opera has forevermore been referred to as the one about the, as opposed to a, Duchess.
Powder Her Face reveals how the young divorcée, Mrs Freeling, wooed a Duke in the 1930s, underwent a high profile divorce in the 1950s in which her ‘scandalous’ private life was raked over in public, and then as an old woman was left with nothing as her luck ran out.
Intriguingly, however, although the opera follows a fairly standard narrative arc in charting the Duchess's rise and fall, there is relatively little sense in which she undergoes any form of personal transformation. Even as a youngster she wants the Duke for the wealth and lifestyle he can bring, and it hardly seems as if anyone else has led a hitherto young innocent astray. Similarly, even as she ages, she still appears to think that the next man or affair can bring her all that she desires.
As a result, the opera is not so much a plot driven event as an analysis of one person’s state of mind, and the fact that the Duchess repeatedly makes the same ‘mistakes’ does not mean she is not a complex character. The implications all along are that she hates herself for being the way that she is, and that her craving for wealth and status are merely a substitute for finding true love. At the end, in a pointed comment, she laments that the only friends she ever had were those she paid.
This English National Opera production, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, is brilliantly staged in the warehouse-like venue of Ambika P3 on Marylebone Road, and no attempt is made to mask its rough and ready infrastructure. Before they enter, patrons are deliberately ushered past all of the lavish props that will later grace the stage. The audience is seated on three sides on steep tiered seating that creates an arena for the unfolding action. The addition of wooden panelling makes the area feel like a courtroom, and when one actually appears in the plot the judge simply stands in a row, the audience around him automatically forming the jury.
The set-up also enables the protagonists to approach the audience directly, and it feels a privilege to be in such close proximity to some truly world-class performers as they sing. Amanda Roocroft is an exceptional Duchess with a voice of such passion and yet technical refinement. As the Hotel Manager, Duke and Judge, Alan Ewing is an exceptionally vibrant and assertive bass, while Claire Eggington and Alexander Sprague excel in the multiple roles that they play.
Thomas Adès's music is haunting in its sheer brilliance. With its discordances and elements of twelve-tone, it has a touch of the film noir about it, which proves perfect for capturing the air of seduction, intrigue and danger that lies at the heart of the piece. With tickets starting from just £16 this is definitely one to experience.
Until 19 April (nine performances) at Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS with start times of 18.30 and 19.30. Tickets (£16-£40): 020 7845 9300 or visit the English National Opera website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from the ENO press team.