Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

On remarking that I was attending Adès’s Powder Her Face that evening, a colleague responded “Ah yes, the opera about blowjobs”. I pointed out, as I attempt to do below, that it is of somewhat broader subject matter and interest, but unfortunately the work’s status as – to my knowledge – the first and only opera to include a ‘fellatio aria’ is the only thing many people know about it (although somehow I suspect Turnage’s opera about Anna Nicole Smith will feature something similar next year in its premiere at The Royal Opera). Although the piece was generally well-received on its 1995 premiere by the Almeida Opera (and, in fact, resulted in the Royal Opera commissioning  Adès’s first full-scale opera, The Tempest), it was nevertheless banned by Classic FM as unsuitable for transmission.

The non-linear story centres around ‘the Duchess’, presenting eight scenes from her life, ranging from 1934 to 1990 and including her marriage, divorce, a ‘celebrity’ interview, and various other activities taking place in her hotel room. Although no names are given to the characters or mentioned in the libretto, she is clearly based on Margaret, Duchess of Argyle – beautiful and stylish, rich, pampered, snobbish, and accustomed to doing exactly as she liked; also the subject of an early example of intrusive paparazzi, when in 1963 photographs of her engaging in oral sex with an unidentified man were obtained by her husband for use as evidence in his divorce case.

Carlos Wagner’s production is highly stylised, with most of the stage replaced by a large staircase, which could light up as people descend it, Busby Berkeley-style. Also Berkeley-esque was the Duchess’s emergence from the giant powder compact where she spends most of her time, its hinged lid and ruched fabric a reference to Venus in her seashell, but the overall visual effect of it and the other giant cosmetics strewn around the stage area more reminiscent of a Dali painting. This setting is used for all scenes, and works well, particularly thanks to Conor Murphy’s simple but striking designs and Paul Keoghan’s thoughtful use of lighting.

Surrounding the Duchess, the three supporting singers each take on a variety of roles – often with no more than a minute or so for the required costume changes. The most exhausting of these must have been Rebecca Bottone’s appearance as Maid (Sc.1), Confidante (Sc.2), Waitress (Sc.3), Mistress (Sc.5), Rubbernecker (Sc.6) and Journalist (Sc.7). Vocally something of a precursor to Ariel (The Tempest), this multiple role goes punishingly high at times, although unlike Ariel, it at least does not remain in the stratosphere the entire time. Bottone demonstrated great energy and flexibility in her singing, negotiating register jumps with apparent ease, and although the tone was too unremittingly bright for my personal taste, it worked very well for this music, in particular when teamed with sparse and edgy instrumental backing. What was somewhat irritating was her constant jiggling, fidgeting, silly dancing and cartoonish overacting, which seemed out of joint with the other singers’ more realistic motion.

The collection of tenor roles (Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Rubbernecker and Delivery Boy), while not appearing quite as strenuous as the soprano’s, require more stylistic versatility, including some 1930s Cole Porter pastichery, complete with cane and boater. Iain Paton’s voice was pleasant and warm of tone, and he differentiated his roles well through voice and mannerism. There were some moments of inaudibility, but I attribute this to some first-night overenthusiasm in the pit rather than any vocal weakness.

Alan Ewing (Hotel Manager, Duke, Judge) was announced as recovering from a throat infection, but there were no traces of this that I could hear. His tone was at its richest in the Judge recitative, when given time to declaim at his own pace. In almost a mirror of the soprano part, he was required frequently to plunge to the depths of the bass register and then back up again; I would have liked to hear more legato in the phrasing, particularly on the leaps, but given the material of the text, a preference for shorter broken phrases was not inappropriate. He was also, in a performance in which I had great trouble making out any of the words – a shame, given Philip Hensher’s clever libretto – the easiest to understand.

All of these characters were essentially peripheral to Joan Rodgers’s Duchess. In the first half she is presented as public figure, as if seen through others’ eyes – servants, friends, husband, gossips – and in the second, more of the human beneath the mask is revealed. The mask of the first act is that of an attractive but superficial, vain and selfish product of a decaying but still powerful class system, and frankly, the same could be said of the human beneath – and yet, from this dislikeable material, Rodgers creates a figure of genuine sympathy. This is in no small part a result of her music – she is accompanied by richer orchestration and lusher harmonies than any of the other characters, tending towards Straussian melodies where the others tend more towards Stravinsky and Weill. This suits well her full-bodied sound, with rounded edges and a healthy vibrato. Rodgers also plays and sings the part as a proper tragic heroine, with steadily increasing emotion evident behind the brittle public persona. Her ability to maintain a sense of dignity while drunk, rolling down the stairs, or indeed, during the famous aforementioned blowjob scene, is impressive, and only slips when, at the very end, she is thrown out of the hotel room which has become her home, and is left sadly reflecting on the only person who ever truly cared for her – her nursemaid, paid to do so.

To counterpoise the cast of four is an orchestra of only fifteen players, yet in the fuller-scored sections they managed to give the impression of an ensemble twice the size. The score requires quickfire changes of genre and style, which, if executed sloppily, could make of the witty score an ill-fitting patchwork; fortunately, the switches and slides were seamless and so made perfect musical sense, no doubt helped greatly by Timothy Redmond’s care and attention to detail, particularly regarding tempo relationships. There were times when the combined wind sections were probably somewhat overpowering, but personally I particularly enjoyed the hearty honking of the lower saxes and bass clarinet. Also of note was Simon Archer’s deployment of an imaginative array of percussion (including fishing reels), and Eva Zöllner, in whose hands that often most annoying of instruments, the accordion, sounded quite charming.

Powder Her Face has been accused of sexism, misogyny, cruelty and sordidness, among other things. Is this the case? Only, I would argue, if commenting on the bigotry and double standards in society mean that the work itself is guilty of such. On the contrary, the appalling unfairness of gender-based prejudice is (literally) hammered home as the Duke splutters his rage at discovering his wife’s infidelity while – apparently entirely without any sense of irony – undressing and humping his mistress. The judge later describes the Duchess as a woman “who has no scruples . . . a beast . . . insatiable, unnatural and altogether fairly appalling” as if it was completely unknown for a person to choose to have uncoerced casual sex with various partners, or to enjoy oral sex a rare aberrance. The judge delivers this speech with his trousers round his ankles – not the most subtle criticism of the hypocrisy of his stance, but one which makes its point. In the very first scene, the Electrician puts on the Duchess’s wrap and mimes sucking someone off, to the squealy sniggers of the Maid, exemplifying the way that embarrassment about sex has been such a rich mine for low-grade British humour. Another type of criticism has been levelled at the character of the Duchess, and the way she is ‘humiliated’ as a woman. Hers, it is true, is not a story of a great, good, or nice woman, but why should one expect this of the subject of an opera? She is selfish and hedonistic, disdainful of the lower classes, takes her pleasure as and when she wants it, and easily distracted by the appearance of an attractive young man, regardless of long-term consequences. Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva were not nice people, either.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]