Opera: No one feels sorry for the Duchess
POWDER HER FACE SNAPE MALTINGS, ALDEBURGH
Wednesday 16 June 1999
Philip Hensher's libretto recounts the typically British fall from grace of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. At the end of her divorce case, the judge denounced her "debased sexual appetite", and she died a pauper in 1993 after being evicted from the Dorchester Hotel, owing pounds 33,000.
Hensher and Ades tell the story with sardonic glee, showing little sympathy for the Duchess, but reserving greater bile for the hypocrites around her, especially the none-too-monogamous Duke (Graeme Broadbent in resonant voice and kilt).
The opera's biggest fault is that it can't contain all the bright ideas Ades (just 23 when he wrote it) wants to cram in: a slinky tango here, a fellatio aria there, parodistic coloratura overdrive, often at the expense of clarity. Not all that glisters here is gold, but the music's gusto wins through.
Ades's ear for unusual sonorities, whether accordion or junk percussion, gives the score a restless energy. Nothing stands still for long, and if text sometimes goes for nothing, the situations are graphically portrayed.
Ades himself conducts the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and David Alden directs. Where a British director might see this as class comedy, Alden, a New Yorker by birth and temperament, makes the piece a kind of tragedia buffa in which the characters are as ravaged as the system that shapes them.
There are neurotic exaggerations in Alden's staging, as in Gideon Davey's designs, but there are also telling images that give the cast something physical to work with.
Mary Plazas is in strong form as the Duchess, and gets good support from Graeme Broadbent as the Duke, and Daniel Norman and Heather Buck in multiple disguises.
Powder her Face will be performed at the Almeida Theatre, London N1, on 30 June & 2,3, 5, 10 July (Box office: 0171-359 4404)
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Woman 'suffocates newborn baby in plastic bag and puts it in her desk minutes after giving birth'
- 2 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 5 Chinese student carries disabled friend to school every day for three years
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove