Powder Her Face, Ambika P3, opera review

A tacky jeu d’esprit with a blow-job aria as its calling-card

ENO’s urge to experiment has led it to put Thomas Ades’s Powder Her Face into a concrete bunker with a novice opera director, Joe Hill-Gibbins, in command.

And as designed by the versatile Ultz, the hotel where the action unfolds feels as dream-like and temporary as the auditorium itself.

By bringing in a dozen mute actors to bolster the four singing ones, and by turning the mechanics of the production into a production in itself, Hill-Gibbins compounds the artificiality of Ades’s allusive score and Philip Hensher’s arch libretto with every fancy trick in the avant-garde book.

Things aren’t helped by the fact that the auditorium is stifling, nor by the fact that in this acoustic the words are incomprehensible (no surtitles), but the real killer is the direction, which is screamingly over-the-top from start to finish.

This work may be a tacky jeu d’esprit with a blow-job aria as its calling-card, but some directors have found both comedy and tragedy in it: Hill-Gibbins makes no dramatic sense of it at all. We are left with virtuoso performances from four outstanding singers – Clare Eggington, Alexander Sprague, Alan Ewing, and Amanda Roocroft as a commanding Duchess – plus a brilliant ensemble accompaniment under Timothy Redmond’s direction.