Monday 30 January 2017

Adès - Powder Her Face (NI Opera, 2017)

Thomas Adès - Powder Her Face

Northern Ireland Opera, Wide Open Opera, Belfast - 2017

Nicholas Chalmers, Antony McDonald, Mary Plazas, Adrian Dwyer, Stephen Richardson, Daire Halpin

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 27th January 2017

Musical boundaries have certainly been pushed over the last seven years that Oliver Mears has presided as artistic director of the newly formed Northern Ireland Opera, and they don't come much more daring and frighteningly modern than Thomas Adès's 1995 opera Powder Her Face. Like all works involved in scandal however there's an indistinct boundary between whether the scandal lies in the source material - here, the notorious 1950s' divorce trial of the Duchess of Argyll and the detail revealed about her promiscuous lifestyle - or with the opera itself, infamously well-known for its rather graphic musical depiction of one of the sexual scenes in the opera. As is often the case with such material, the notoriety rarely lives up to the reality, but NI Opera's collaboration with Wide Open Opera on Adès's Powder Her Face makes a convincing case for its music-theatre qualities.

The nature of the material and how it is approached in Powder Her Face presents such challenges and if it's not pitched right it's more likely to provoke giggles than shock, but in reality neither response is particularly helpful in getting to the point of the opera. The point of Powder Her Face however, it must be said, has always been difficult to judge. Director Antony McDonald recognises that there's no way to avoid the elements of shock and giggles, but the trick really is to effectively control where the shocks and giggles should be, and to try to put them in service of the human story that is too often overlooked in the case of the Duchess of Argyll.

It's the human story that seems to be lacking in Philip Hensher's libretto. The opera is divided into eight scenes that cover the years from 1934 through to 1990. The scenes and the limited number of characters involved don't seem to be particularly well chosen and scarcely seem adequate to shed any real psychological light on the Duchess or even the extent of her scandalous extra-marital activities. The main content of the opera is framed by the two scenes in 1990, which seems to provide a distancing social context for the work, viewing the past through modern eyes. There seems to be as much emphasis placed on the peripheral characters of the servants and the hotel staff as there does on the Duchess, and their response to her, to her position and to her notoriety is emphasised in the libretto.

In the 1990 scenes, the hotel staff are deeply disrespectful, putting on her coats and jewellery and acting out the contrast between her airs and graces and the reality of her disgraced reputation. Their behaviour is in marked contrast to the how the servants and the 'lower classes' behave in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s. Subservience and simmering resentment at their treatment, not to mention being used for sexual gratification, seems to deteriorate in equal measure with the decline of the reputation of the Duchess of Argyll. If the libretto suggests that Powder Her Face is a play about changing attitudes towards class and social orders, it doesn't seem to reveal anything profound or revelatory. It's the music of Thomas Adès however that gives the work another dimension.

And it's the music that suggests the tone to adopt that best suits the presentation of the opera. Antony McDonald previously directed the NI Opera/Wide Open Opera production of Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest, an equally challenging work where tone and presentation is of vital importance, and helped turn it into one of the most astonishing and entertaining productions I've ever seen. (Can we see it again please?). He seems to get the tone absolutely right yet again in this elegant and stylish Powder Her Face, not relying solely on the literal content of the libretto, but finding rather ways of presenting it that respond to the playful period musical touches with an underlying discord that contrasts with the rather more tragic personal fate of the Duchess. The Belfast audience dutifully gasped when provoked, giggled at all the right moments and responded with enthusiasm at the conclusion.

That kind of response is never solely related to just one successful aspect of a production; it all has to work together. Sensitivity to the content of the libretto and the tone of the music is one thing, but the underlying humanity of the characterisation is best served by the singing and the acting performances. That's particularly the case with the depiction of the Duchess of Argyll. Judging by the 1990 framing scenes, the audience are being asked to sympathise with this woman without there seeming to be any real humanising content provided in either the scenes or the music, but Mary Plazas - who clearly has great experience with this role - showed how much dignity there was in a woman subject to pressures of her libido and her position. It's a terrific performance that completely humanises the role.

It's this aspect that is vital not only in the understanding of Powder Her Face, it's what also ensures that the opera has a greater universality and life-span beyond the social context or the period class issues it raises. It's the degree of truth in the human story that lies underneath such issues that will determine whether the opera can sit alongside the depictions of women at odds with their times and society in La Traviata, Madama Butterfly or Lulu. As it stands, it's impossible to judge whether Powder Her Face will have a place alongside such works, but the Northern Ireland Opera/Wide Open Opera production and Mary Plazas's performance certainly got beneath the surface of a woman who is struggling to control and balance her own desires against the expectations and judgements of society, even as that society gradually changes.

The whole vitality of work, its relevance across the different periods that present differing responses of an unforgiving society, are very much contained within the performances of the other three singing roles in the opera. It's amazing in fact just how much can be conveyed by the brief scenes of no great expositional nature when you have a small cast that are capable of imbuing them with verve, personality and an essential degree of unselfconsciousness. Adrian Dwyer, Stephen Richardson and Daire Halpin throw themselves into the roles, always judging the tone perfectly. Richardson is permitted some of the more slapstick moments (and slapping with a stick moments) as Hotel Manager, Husband and Judge, which he delivers with gusto. Daire Halpin makes deceptively light work of the challenging range and variety of Maid characters, forming a terrific double act with Adrian Dwyer who is equally as impressive as the Waiter in a number of guises.

Without subtitles, the English text doesn't always carry over when it has other voices singing over one another and a complex musical arrangement to follow, but Nicholas Chalmers measured the chamber orchestration exceptionally well, with a sense of fluidity that gave greater continuity to those separate scenes with their variations in musical and dramatic tone. Credit where credit is due, Nicholas Chalmers' contribution is often overlooked alongside the more visual artistic direction of the Oliver Mears' stage productions, but he has also been an important factor in the Northern Ireland Opera success story. Certainly, the response to the opening night of this new production of Powder Her Face would seem to vindicate the approach that has been adopted by Mears and Chalmers with their NI Opera venture, and I'm sure that it will be maintained with the promising appointment of Walter Sutcliffe as the new incoming artistic director.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera