Opera: No one feels sorry for the Duchess

IN HIS first season as the Aldeburgh Festival's artistic director, Thomas Ades chose to open its 52nd outing last Friday with his opera Powder Her Face. Unpardonable egoism? Perhaps, but the opera has not been seen in Britain since its first staging in 1995, so, egoism or not, it provided an opportunity for a welcome second look.

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.

Nick Kimberley

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)