• Opera
  • By Thomas Adès
  • Director: Joe Hill-Gibbins
  • Conductor: Timothy Redmond
  • Cast includes Amanda Roocroft, Claire Eggington, Alan Ewing, Alexander Sprague
  • Ambika P3, London
  • 2,4,8,10,14,16 April 2014 at 19.30
  • 5,12,19 April 2014 at 18.30
  • Review by James Holloway
  • 3 April 2014
Powder Her Face
3.0Reviewer's Rating

Undoing, in one form or another, is something this lady excelled at throughout her life.

Premiered in 1995, Powder Her Face is the story of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, a socialite who epitomises the insouciance and sleaze surrounding the death-throes of English “High-Society”. The Duchess clearly had a voracious sexual appetite, a dedication that seems to have distracted her from any thoughts of financial prudence. Sex, drugs (alcohol at any rate), and bankruptcy are all good operatic fodder.

Thomas Adès score is witty with influences from all over the 20th century. Look out the screwdriver tango .The orchestra is chamber in size and Wagnerian in diversity. I think it may include a theramin and some fishing reels. Of course there are times when it sounds like a glorified sound effects machine, but these instances a mercifully few and the music is very well played.

Somewhat bizarrely, access to the auditorium is via an underground wasteland. The audience must trek through a concrete jungle before climbing across the stage to find their seats. Nevertheless this, and the fact that it is set in the round, makes one feel more a part of the action. Unfortunately the acoustics in this bunker of an auditorium are surprisingly boomy.

A significant drawback of this setup is that whenever a singer is not facing your seat it is impossible to hear what they are singing. There are no surtitles, although you can purchase the libretto. This is a shame, as the vocal virtuosity exhibited by the cast is exceptional (in particular Claire Eggington). Quite a lot of the humour is lost as a result, although the blow-job scene doesn’t seem to suffer from such theatrical subtleties.

Amanda Roocroft charts a superbly de-haut-en-bas Duchess’s progression through marriage, divorce, and ultimate undoing. Alan Ewing has a very interesting voice – plummy and at some points almost bi-tonal. Unsurprisingly, he is in possession of a highly flexible larynx which is well worth hearing.

The set is disgustingly pink and over-the-top, which is exactly what is called for. There are some technical niceties too. Live video cameras project developing polaroids onto the walls, and the lighting rig forms an active part of the set. However, I was fortunate enough not to be seated in the section of the audience that was regularly blinded by a particular light. Yet the production suffers from too eclectic a set. The mixture of objects from different periods lends it an ageless and anchorless feel. I’m sure this captures many of the Duchess’s characteristics, but it’s over done and serves more to distract than support.

As fun and different as this production is, it feels somewhat lacking. Maybe it was the stifling heat in the bunker, but I found myself getting fairly restive. The main objection I have is to the arrangement of setting it in the round. This rendered half the text inaudible and a third of the set invisible. Still, it is different and worth seeing if you’re kicking your heels up in the Baker Street end of town.

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