Sparkling performances, shimmering shrubbery, dazzling high camp
By Rupert Christiansen
From Telegraphy.co.uk - 16/06/2006
Thomas Adès conducted a concert performance of his first opera, Powder Her Face, at the Barbican. The score is nothing short of sensational in its brilliance, energy and wit, but the prevalence of parody and pastiche and the arch self-consciousness with which it treats the Firbankian cautionary tale of Margaret Duchess of Argyll leaves the piece no more than a heartless, if dazzling, exercise in high camp.
The singing of the cast of four and the playing of the LSO Chamber Ensemble were magnificent, presided over by Adès's own unimpeachable conducting.
From Guardian.co.uk - Monday June 12, 2006
Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face is the chamber opera that, in 1995, catapulted the 24-year-old composer to the forefront of British contemporary music, a position he has been inhabiting comfortably ever since. With a libretto by Philip Hensher, the work archly tells of the downfall of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, brought low by a salacious and very public divorce case; it hasn't been staged in the UK for some years. And nor was it here. Originally advertised as a semi-staging, by the time of performance this had been downgraded, frustratingly, into concert format.
A pity, as the musical performance did justice to this impossibly confident score. Adès himself directed 16 of the London Symphony Orchestra's A-list players and, while he is not the most stylish conductor, the music's vivacity and fluency were obvious. The opera's essence is seedy, sepia-tinged nostalgia. As 1930s popular song, tango and slow waltz course through the score, along with quotations from Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Schubert, one wonders if - at this stage in his career at least - Adès was most himself when writing pastiches of other people's music.
On an emotional level it's a curiously neutral work, but its portrayal of the Duchess didn't seem quite as heartless as it might - partly because of the dignity in soprano Mary Plazas's exemplary performance, and partly because all the supporting characters are so vividly horrid. The women, simpering airheads with varying degrees of malice, were sung with poise by Valdine Anderson, and in the Judge's monologue Stephen Richardson descended into vicious caricature in a virtuoso lather.
Yet, penguin-suited and evening-dressed, they all seemed uncomfortable - and who could blame them? The largely unnecessary amplification flattened the singers' voices and made us completely reliant on the surtitles. And Plazas had to sing the Duchess's famous wordless fellatio "aria" from behind a music stand, the projected stage directions overhead staying tactfully blank. But losing that semi-staging remained the performance's biggest blow.