Thomas Adès’s chamber opera, premiered 19 years ago and now performed worldwide, has undoubtedly come of age but it has not yet grown up. That much is confirmed by English National Opera’s new production, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, designed by Ultz and conducted by Timothy Redmond. On its own terms, despite an acoustic that muffles most of the words, the show works reasonably well. It is crammed with 1950s/60s period detail. It handles the so-called “blow-job aria” tastefully. It also celebrates the Polaroid technique that exposed the sexual preferences of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, on whose life the opera is ostensibly based. Hill-Gibbins evidently believes Powder Her Face is shorthand for the way the public inspects the famous: the performing area becomes a set for cameras, lights and flash photography, making the audience complicit as voyeur, participant and jury.
But no, the piece has not grown up. Everything Hill-Gibbins does tells us that Powder Her Face is about a historical personage whose private life, lived out in public, has fed our moral hypocrisy ever since the notorious court case for the duchess’s 1963 divorce. We don’t need another illustrative dramatisation of a real-life society beauty. What Hill-Gibbins obscures, right down to the “historical” accuracy of Amanda Roocroft’s clothes, wig and make-up in the lead role, is that the character created by Adès and his librettist, Philip Hensher, is an operatic archetype – fatally flawed but also intensely human in her vulnerability, her wounded pride and tragic grandeur. Only when this timeless aspect is understood will the work’s depth be revealed.
Hill-Gibbins’ show is about the marketing of salaciousness: it skates over the substance of the piece. In such a context, what we hear in Adès’s brilliant score is merely its cleverness, its chill heartlessness and its pitiless parodies – all of which come across powerfully in the hands of Redmond and the ENO orchestra.
Roocroft’s duchess – inspired casting – lends the part dignity and grand-operatic size. Alan Ewing is superb in the multiple bass roles, Alexander Sprague equally versatile in the tenor part, but the honours on this occasion go to Clare Eggington’s Zerbinetta-like maid – a mesmerisingly chameleon-like impersonation.