The plots of operas are often based around big personalities who make bad decisions and suffer the consequences; forbidden love and tragic death; power and downfall; secrets, scandals, shame and surprises. Rather than invent a central character, Thomas Adès took the real life story of Margaret Whigham (who later would become the Duchess of Argyll) as the basis for Powder Her Face.
“I was beautiful, I was famous, I was young, I was rich …”
Dressed in black, Plazas portrays a woman who teeters along the fine line separating confidence from vulnerability. “Will they write songs for me?” the young Duchess wonders. Oddly, other than occasional accessories and slower movement, little attempt is made to physically depict her changing age throughout the two act opera.
The other source of mirth is the set which is dominated by a larger than life mattress. A chaise (très) longue adds to the pantomime feel of the some of the scenes while Stephen Richardson’s entrance down some unanticipated steps onto the bed as the Duke adds to the symbolism of the piece. The judge’s bench after the interval is another unexpected but smile-inducing surprise built into the set. And what other opera would include vacuum cleaners, carrots, a lobster and a fluffy stuffed poodle as props?
Many of the Ulster Orchestra performers under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers in the pit assisted with the enormous number of percussion instruments (including a swanee whistle) in the score. Some of the lyrics were drowned out by the musicians: a real shame given the English libretto and the relatively unfamiliar tale. NI Opera’s new artistic director Walter Sutcliffe needs to revisit the accessibility issue of surtitles. A bigger distraction was an audience member in F26 who conversed with people around her in a loud voice that must have carried onto the stage never mind back several rows to where I was sitting.
Interviewed earlier in January, NI Opera’s outgoing artistic director Oliver Mears talked about the woman at the heart of the opera:
“She was a colourful personality and certainly some of the things on stage in this show are colourful as well. Truthful to the type of life she led. I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous or salacious … it’s based on a real story, and the scandal focussed around the headless man photos that were the core of the divorce case in the sixties … you can’t escape that side of the story and be truthful to what her life was.”
Yet in a society that values prosperity and satisfaction above benevolence and service, Powder Her Face is a reminder that neither money nor sex buys happiness, while the pursuit of both can be ruinous to your soul and health.
“It’s about people with extreme attitudes, extreme emotions, living on the edge in terms of their behaviour, so it’s not surprising that for some it’s a little bit too much to stomach. Opera has always been shocking down the decades.”
When your money is spent, your possessions have gone, your reputation is depleted and all you are left with is old age and notoriety, what do you have left?
Powder Her Face continues at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until Sunday 29 January. Co-producers Opera Theatre Company will be taking the show on an island-wide tour during February and March.
Photo credit: Patrick Redmond