Powder Her Face review: Thomas Adès opera about Duchess of Argyll

Duchess’s sexual voracity is focus of opera with unflagging singers and INO Orchestra

The orchestra in Thomas Adès's first opera, Powder Her Face, is often like a kind of Greek chorus. It comments on the action in ways that range from cackling and stomping to seething outrage, and its commentary is peppered with references to familiar styles and musical phrases.

There’s a lot to comment on in the opera’s depiction of a society beauty who becomes a duchess. The work is based on the life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, a woman whose sexual voracity brought her an extraordinary public notoriety that persists to this day, 25 years after her death at the age of 80 in 1993.

The Duchess’s tastes and activities became public property through her 1963 divorce case, not least the images it featured of “headless men”, the press’s description of the male torsos that had been photographed in sexual activities with her. As the judge in the opera proclaims, “She is a Don Juan among women/She is insatiable, unnatural and altogether fairly appalling.”

The production directed and designed by Antony McDonald, first seen in Belfast last year and now revived for an Irish National Opera tour by Fabiana Piccioli, does not shirk from the lasciviousness of the story. There’s plenty of humping and grinding, and even a scene of nappy fetishism, to justify the music’s frequent sense of hair-trigger incredulity.


Compulsive sex

Soprano Mary Plazas’s duchess comports herself with a kind of dispassionate compulsion. She is self-aware, driven, but also mostly heedless. The self-absorption behind a life of compulsive sex is not an affliction that allows much overlap with the idea of making love.

The supporting characters, a riotous medley entrusted to just three singers, soprano Daire Halpin, tenor Adrian Dwyer and bass Stephen Richardson, range from hotel staff and media to her husband and the judge. Their energy and adaptability, and the riot of colour exploding from the INO Orchestra under Timothy Redmond, are unflagging.

The music does for a while shift its perspective to show a degree of compassion for the duchess's situation, which she sums up herself – "the only people who were ever good to me were paid for it". But it doesn't last. At the end, facing removal from her hotel lodgings, she can't even turn the hotel manager's decision with the offer of a sexual favour.
On tour to Sligo, Dublin, Tralee. Thursday's performance in Navan has been cancelled. See irishnationalopera.com

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor