Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Mahler Songs : Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall

Star singer and star composer, a combination guaranteed to bring in the fans. Christian Gerhaher sang Mahler at the Wigmore Hall with Gerold Huber. Gerhaher shot to fame when he sang Wolfram at the Royal Opera House Tannhäuser in 2010.

Modernity vanquished? Verdi Un ballo in maschera, Royal Opera House, London

Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.

La Traviata in Ljubljana Slovenia

Small country, small opera house — big ensemble spirit. Internationally acclaimed soprano Natalia Ushakova steps in for indisposed local Violetta with mixed results.

Otello in Bucharest — Moor’s the pity

Bulgarian director Vera Nemirova’s production of Otello for the Romanian National Opera in Bucharest was certainly full of new ideas — unfortunately all bad.

Il trovatore at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its current revival of the 2006-2007 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore by Sir David McVicar Lyric Opera has assembled a talented quintet of principal singers whose strengths match this conception of the opera.

Schubert’s Winterreise by Matthias Goerne

This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close.

Mary, Queen of Heaven, Wigmore Hall

O Maria Deo grata — ‘O Mary, pleasing to God’: so begins Robert Fayrfax’s antiphon, one of several supplications to the Virgin Mary presented in this thought-provoking concert by The Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall.

Analyzed not demonized — Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera House

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, first revival of the 2009 production, one of the first to attract widespread hostility even before the curtain rose on the first night.

Florencia in el Amazonas Makes Triumphant Return to LA

On November 22, 2014, Los Angeles Opera staged Francesca Zambello’s updated version of Florencia in el Amazonas.

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

John Adams and his long-standing collaborator Peter Sellars have described The Gospel According to the Other Mary as a ‘Passion oratorio’.

A new Yevgeny Onegin in Zagreb — Prince Gremin’s Fabulous Pool Party

Superb conducting from veteran Croatian maestro Nikša Bareza makes up for an absurd waterlogged new production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Nabucco in Novi Sad

After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 27th October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.

La Bohème in San Francisco

First Toronto, then Houston and now San Francisco, the third stop of a new production of Puccini's La bohème by Canadian born, British nurtured theater director John Caird.

Radvanovsky Sings Recital in Los Angeles

Every once in a while Los Angeles Opera presents an important recital in the three thousand seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

L’elisir d’amore, Royal Opera

This third revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore needed a bit of a pep up to get moving but once it had been given a shot of ‘medicinal’ tincture things spiced up nicely.

Samling Showcase, Wigmore Hall

Founded in 1996, Samling describes itself as a charity which ‘inspires musical excellence in young people’.

La cenerentola in San Francisco

The good news is that you don’t have to go all the way to Pesaro for great Rossini.

Rameau: Maître à danser — William Christie, Barbican London

Maître à danser: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican, London, presented a defining moment in Rameau performance practice, choreographed with a team of dancers.

Le Nozze di Figaro — or Sex on the Beach?

The most memorable thing (and definitely not in a good way) about this performance of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Serbian National Theatre in Belgrade was the self-serving, infantile, offensive and just plain wrong production by celebrated Serbian theatre director Jagoš Marković.

The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’

Should looks matter when casting the role of the iconic temptress for HD simulcast?

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Joan Rodgers as the Duchess [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera House]
28 Apr 2010

The Power of Powder: Thomas Adès at the Royal Opera House, London

Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face is back at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House. It's a classic. Once again, Joan Rodgers sings the Duchess, supported by Alan Ewing, Iain Paton and the incomparable Rebecca Bottone, all in multiple roles.

Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face

Joan Rodgers: the Duchess, Alan Ewing, Iain Paton, Rebecca Bottone (multiple roles), Timothy Redmond (conductor), Royal Opera House Orchestra and guest artists. Carlos Wagner (director), Conor Murphy (designs), Paul Keogan (lighting) Tom Baert (choreography). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London. 26th April, 2010.

Above: Joan Rodgers as the Duchess

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera House

 

In 15 years, Powder Her Face has gone from new music cult hit to an opera of international significance. The Tempest notwithstanding, it’s Adès’s finest work. He’s gone on to fame, fortune and Los Angeles, but hasn’t quite recaptured the vitality of his early work. More recently, he’s revisited Powder Her Face, writing a suite based on it, so maybe that will reinvigorate his creative juices.

So cherish this wonderful production directed by Carlos Wagner. The production is every bit as much of a star as the Duchess of Argyll, who inspired the opera in the first place. In 1963, she appeared naked, but for a string of pearls, in photos which caused a scandal, because she was performing on naked men (one of whom was later revealed as Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)

“In your face” is probably an indelicate term to use in the circumstances, but it describes the magnificent staging well. There’s no way round the fact that the Duchess was destroyed by hypocrisy. In the small space of the Linbury Studio, Conor Murphy’s giant staircase overwhelms, but that’s the point: there’s no escape! It’s a brilliant piece of theatre in itself, because it changes character in each scene. In the end, Paul Keogan’s lighting turns it into a lurid neon sunset, the perfect coda to the Duchess’s life.

©BC20080607265-REBECCA-BOTT.gifRebecca Bottone as Mistress

The stairs also mean the cast can go up and down using the whole performance space, overcoming the cramped limitations of the small stage. Perhaps that’s a reverse metaphor for the Duchess, too. With her wealth and beauty she could have lived a charmed life, if she’d conformed. Instead she grabbed life greedily, imbibing to the full. The headless men in the notorious photos got away scot-free, as did the philandering, brutish Duke, but the Duchess’s reputation was destroyed. Defiant to the end, she cocoons herself away from a world that’s changing in ways she can’t understand (“Buggery, legal?” she exclaims.) Her end is sordid, but she keeps her dignity, at least in delusion. Larger than life personalities just don’t fit in grubby society.

The music’s remarkably inventive. Saxophones and jazzy clarinets evoke the glamour of 1930’s London. “They don’t know how to do parties now,” she wistfully tells a young reporter. Adès’ does luscious elegance, but undercuts it with sharp, dissonant edges. The luxury is illusion. Debutante balls were a meat market for the upper classes, nothing romantic. The Duchess buys sex from a waiter. “You can get anything with money,” she cries. But others have more money, and more power. The Courts condemn her, to the prurient delight of the “lower” class, represented by Bottone and Paton in dirty macs. And when the money runs out, the Duchess is evicted.

©BC20080609333-PATON-AS-WAI.gifIain Paton as Waiter and Joan Rodgers as Duchess

Adès weaves elusive sounds into his orchestra. At the beginning of the second Act, he starts with solo accordion, played in a mysterious, bluesy fashion.. It makes an excellent bridge between past and present. Later, accordion, harp and piano (Adès’s instrument and “voice”) combine, wheezing, wailing and tensely staccato percussive blasts. It’s surreal, like hearing the ghosts of the past dancing in Hell. At the end, sinister cracks and whirrs are heard. They’re the sound of fishing rods being reeled in. Like a fish, the Duchess has been caught and dies.

The opera is both diamond hard and brittle, but then, that’s the subject. The Duchess wasn’t a nice person even though she was a product of the circles she moved in, and the men around her are worse. Her sexuality is compulsive, and fundamentally unerotic. (It’s the role, not Rodger’s portrayal, which is superb.) Perhaps the maid gets more fun. Bottone’s high-pitched shrieks at the top of her register (an Adès’ trademark) are well deployed. She’s the voice of anarchy. Her voice rips apart the silky surface of propriety.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):