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 Performances

Fedora in Genoa

It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.

The Marriage of Figaro, LA Opera

On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.

The Tempest Songbook, Gotham Chamber Opera

Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.

San Diego Opera presents Adams’ Riveting Nixon in China

Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.

Ars Minerva presents Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra in San Francisco

It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Tosca in Marseille

Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.

Poetry beyond words — Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.

Arizona Opera Presents Magritte Style Magic Flute

On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.

Die Meistersinger and The Indian Queen
at the ENO

It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Royal Opera

At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Barbican, London

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?

Welsh National Opera: The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel

Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.

Double bill at Guildhall

Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.

LA Opera: Barber of Seville

Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me … I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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.

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):