Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

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):