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Amanda Roocroft as the Duchess [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith]
08 Apr 2014

Powder Her Face, ENO

As one descends the steel steps into the cavernous bunker of Ambika P3, one seems about to enter rather insalubrious realms — just right one might imagine, then, for an opera which delves into the depths of the seedier side of celebrity life.

Powder Her Face, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Amanda Roocroft as the Duchess

Photos © Richard Hubert Smith


With its scuffed floors, grubby whitewash and exposed pipes, this dimly lit ‘contemporary arts venue’ has all the charm of an underground car park. Sadly, it has the acoustic of one too, which makes for problems a-plenty for the cast of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face.

The opera depicts the decline of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, the infamous British socialite whose shameful ill-repute followed a 1963 divorce case against her second husband, the 11th Duke of Argyll, featuring indecent photographs and scandalous accusations. For English National Opera’s new production in the infernal cave of Ambika P3, the audience is seated in raked wooden tiers, on three sides of the central stage. The concept is clear: director Joe Hill-Gibbins has made us part of the show, first tabloid rubberneckers, greedily relishing the Duchess’s crimes and misdemeanours, then courtroom observers self-righteously witnessing her disgrace and punishment.

ENO Powder Her Face 2014 Amanda Roocroft, Claire Eggington and Alexander Sprague (c) Richard Hubert Smith.pngAmanda Roocroft as the Duchess, Clare Eggington as the Maid and Alexander Sprague as the Electrician

In this spirit of voyeurism — Jay Scheib’s New York City Opera production of February 2013 adopted a similar approach — cameras and cameramen are ubiquitous, salaciously snapping the Duchess’s moral transgressions. And, we are morbidly complicit; as becomes more explicit in Scene 6, when Maid and Electrician, in the guise of scandal-seeking plebs (baseball caps, outsize sunglasses and lurid green anoraks) take their places amid the audience in the courtroom gallery. (In fact, it seems rather ironic that an opera that satirises both aristocratic debauchery and the grim prurience of the hypocritical Establishment and baying populace, should itself have become a succès de scandale (Classic FM considered it unsuitable for transmission) for its operatic fellatio.

Tacky polaroids and web cams flash on the wall high above us, and serve a useful practical purpose, delineating the plot in the absence of surtitles. For, despite their best efforts, the casts’ consonants are unable to cut through the venue’s reverberating boom. Hill-Gibbins and Movement Director Imogen Knight thoughtfully position the protagonists around the traverse, but inevitably as soon as a back is turned the words vanish.

Adès’ score thus has to tell the tale, and the panoply of parodic pastiches that it offers certainly paints deft mood pictures. Accordion, saxophone, even fishing reel, are all called into service to delineate the Duchess’s downfall and the world of hedonist indulgences that she forgoes. The selected instrumentalists of the orchestra of English National Opera who form the chamber ensemble produce fantastic playing of verve and wit. Conductor Timothy Redmond is an experienced proponent of this score and draws forth both its jazzy sleaziness and lugubrious anxiety. Unfortunately, placed to one side of the alley stage, the loud instrumental brassiness is rather unyielding, another over-powering obstacle to the singers’ audibility.

Designer Ultz dangles a paste chandelier aloft and summons a suitably dissolute air of shabby chic. The Duchess’s boudoir is a fading monument to sugary excess: salmon pink drapes, plump padded cushions and silky fleck wallpaper. But, it’s all more sordid than sensual; louche rather than luxurious. The scenes move swiftly, charting in flashback and by flashbulb the Duchess’s dissipations. But, as the dozen silent actors who rush around with measuring tape and microphone, gathering evidence and filming the unsavoury proceedings, the stage area becomes ever more cluttered: to plush chairs and dishevelled double bed are added hotel dining room (with palm trees and towering plates of crustacean cuisine), mauve enamel bathtub (with gold dolphin taps) — not to mention a multitude of looming lenses. It all begins to resemble Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’, the detritus charting the embarrassing carnage of the Duchess’s past. Indeed, the various leftovers of a life do indeed become labelled exhibits during the court proceedings in Scene 6.

Amid this dingy décor and disarray, the four principals are uniformly superb. Taking the multi-roles of Maid-Confidant-Mistress-Journalist and Electrician-Lounge Lizard-Waiter-Delivery Boy, soprano Claire Eggington and tenor Alexander Sprague respectively surmount the technical challenges with expertise and energy. Eggington assails the score’s stratospheric gabbling with aplomb; her intonation is unfailingly spot on, and her agile, bright coloratura never shrill — it’s just a pity that she is defeated by the resounding boom.

ENO Powder Her Face 2014 Alan Ewing 2 (c) Richard Hubert Smith - Copy.pngAlan Ewing as the Hotel Manager

Entering from the staircase, with all the pomposity of a drag queen diva, the fur-coated, bewigged Sprague demonstrates a theatrical exuberance which is matched by his engaging, flexible tenor. Clean of tone and varied of colour, Sprague is an intelligent performer, and proved highly alert to the musical and dramatic comedy.

Bass Alan Ewing, as Hotel Manager-Duke-Judge, is astonishing as he employs every shade and nuance of his capacious voice to convey character and mood. His appearance as Judge, a black spectral monster presiding aloft, was a wonderful coup de théâtre and this aria the musical highlight of the evening. Ewing’s magisterial pronouncements in a sinister low register accompanied by cynical brass fanfares were chilling (they reminded me of Janáček’s Sinfonietta which, oddly, was used as the theme tune for Crown Court, a Granada Television drama series broadcast during the 1970s!). Ewing can float a falsetto too; controlling wide registral leaps with technical assurance, he created an unease which was enhanced by instrumental glissando squeaks. Adès’ score in this scene has a visceral intensity. The Judge’s verdict that ‘She is a beast to an exceptional degree’ is accompanied by a savage orchestral pounding, evidence perhaps of the veracity of his conclusion that the Duchess is ‘insatiable, unnatural and altogether fairly appalling’, but also of the shocking patriarchal oppression and abuse latent in his declaration that the ‘Duke has no stain on his character. I pity him for the mistake he has made, which frankly any of us might make’.

Similarly striking was Ewing’s appearance as the Hotel Manager in the final scene (set in 1990), when he was coldly dismissive of the Duchess’s distress as her life is dismantled, the debris piled high. Ewing’s wonderful descending glissando, plumbing the depths, was complemented by the emotions suggested by the orchestral shadows, the unsettling sequences of chords evoking the elusive ‘interview chords’ of Britten’s Billy Budd.

ENO Powder Her Face 2014 Claire Eggington 2 (c) Richard Hubert Smith.pngClaire Eggington as the Maid

In the title role, Amanda Roocroft was totally committed, offering an heroic performance — not least when forced to wear a black lace body suit and when performing the notorious sex act. Presented throughout in aging decline, she watched scenes from her past play out before her, creating a sense of emotional estrangement. Roocroft’s Duchess had both hauteur and weariness. Her dismissive response to public condemnation — ‘So that is all. I am judged. I do not care’ — was powerfully eloquent in that it conveyed the sincerity of her contempt, enhanced by searing trumpet sneers at the close. Perhaps the closest we come to feeling pity for the monstrous Duchess is in Scene 7 (set in 1970) when the shamed aristocrat’s disdainful rejoinder, ‘I never touch money. … I have no need to. Cash is wearying and cash is soiling’, is juxtaposed with a visual crystallisation of self-delusion at the end of the scene, as the Duchess desperately tears up her enormous, unpaid hotel bill. She is surrounded by men in various states of undress, stationed motionless, as string glissandi and the garish green glow create a mood of unreality and alienation. The whining instrumental mockery builds through a startlingly strident crescendo; she is both defiant and defensive.

Roocroft’s breakdown in the final scene was shocking. A sole chair remains, a symbol of loneliness which is enhanced by the cold open intervals of clarinets moving in parallels, the lines lagging rhythmically. As she frantically slaps rouge upon her lips, the cosmetic stick breaks, like the illusions which have sustained her; she violently smears and daubs as the brass section’s curling lines deride, the vacuity of her life painfully embodied in the empty, broken atomiser of her favourite perfume, ‘Joy’.

Adès’ technical precocity — he was just 24-years-old when the opera was composed in 1995 — and easy mastery of parody and pastiche reminds one of Benjamin Britten, to whom the composer was frequently compared during his early career. In Powder Her Face, the relentless parodies become a bit wearisome — the stylistic sophistication is impressive but there is an emotional emptiness which begins to irk.

Although musically worlds apart, it seems to me that there are similarities between Adès’ opera and Britten’s Death in Venice, with its composite roles and demeaned aging aristocrat; but whereas we are moved by Gustav von Aschenbach’s humiliations, vulnerability and despair, it is hard to feel pity for someone whose monstrous utterances betray a vicious racism and arrogant snobbery. When the Duchess tells a journalist, ‘One never sees a white face, not in the street, not now … Black men buy houses/ Jews go everywhere’, we are hardly endeared. One might say that Adès’ score and its ‘star’ both have a heartless brittleness — much like the modern cult of celebrity. The echoes of the Duchess of Malfi — ‘I am a Duchess still’, Margaret of Argyll superciliously retorts to the onlookers who cluster outside the court to witness her mortification — seem out of place when the speaker has so little dignity and nobility. She is driven by poison rather than passion; her final ‘mad scene’ has little pathos, for she is shredded by a self-destructive solipsism not external oppression, and the dry piano chords seem to mock the woman who has only pride and conceit to blame for her demise.

That said, Roocroft and the other principals work unremittingly and show indefatigable versatility. Ultimately, both the Duchess and her drama may seem shallow, ugly and worthless, the opera merely a trifle depicting the idle rich behaving badly. Yet, if there is little of moral value, Powder Her Face is certainly an entertaining jeu d’esprit; and these high-quality performances deserve a more helpful venue.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

The Duchess: Amanda Roocroft; Maid: Claire Eggington; Electrician: Alexander Sprague; Hotel Manager: Alan Ewing; Actors: Trevor Goldstein, Stewart Heffernan, Stephen Pucci; Hotel Staff: Patrick Achegani, George Bishop, David Black, Michael Black, Jessica Morris, Mark Shevlin, Daniel Soton, Adam Tripp; Director, Joe Hill-Gribbins; Conductor: Timothy Redmond; Designer: Ultz; Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman; Assistant Designer: Mark Simmonds; Movement Director: Imogen Knight; members of the ENO Orchestra: leader, Janice Graham. Ambika P3, University of Westminster London, Wednesday 2nd April 2014.

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