Tuesday 27 April 2010

Powder her Face, Royal Opera, 26 April 2010

Linbury Studio Theatre

Duchess – Joan Rodgers
Hotel Manager, Duke, Judge – Alan Ewing
Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Rubbernecker, Delivery Boy – Iain Paton
Maid, Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker, Society Journalist – Rebecca Bottone
Actor – Tom Baert

Carlos Wagner (director)
Conor Murphy (designer)
Paul Keogan (lighting)
Tom Baert (choreography)

Members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and Guest Artists
Timothy Redmond (conductor)

First performed in 1995 by Almeida Opera at the Cheltenham Music Festival, Thomas Adès’s Powder her Face has received a number of productions: a rare accolade for any ‘new’ opera. This production from Carlos Wagner was first seen at the Royal Opera in 2008, but is based on the director’s production for De Vlaamse Opera. That said, though I have heard much about it and have heard excerpts, this was my first full encounter.

What to make of Powder her Face, then? It is certainly preferable to The Tempest, which I heard on its first night, sounding like imitation Britten, with a dash of greyest Hindemith tossed in to churn out the requisite number of bars. By contrast, the music here can be fun, even if, in its relentless parody, it soon wears thin. Peter Maxwell Davies did something superficially similar quite some time ago, albeit with more winning and, I suspect, more substantial results. There are all sorts of resemblances: Berg, Strauss, Weill, Britten, popular music, and so on. But they only ever seem to be resemblances, for what makes the ‘original’ sounds into music is absent; almost everything here is but skin deep. That may be the point; it certainly seems to be a suggestive starting point for Carlos Wagner’s excellent production. Is it, though, enough? Allusion not only veers perilously close to pastiche, but a heartless pastiche, whose real character seems to lie in the admittedly brilliant rummaging around in the ruins of tonality, the brittleness, the not-quite-disjunctures. More of those and less of the parody might ultimately have proved more productive. As a first opera, this would by any standards represent an auspicious debut, but is it more than that? I realise that I am falling into the trap intended, wishing for ‘profundity’ in worthy, Teutonic fashion, yet is the work as clever as it thinks it is? Adès’s music is clever enough, but Philip Hensher’s libretto is startlingly variable, sometimes far too attention-seeking for its own good. If the work is an indictment of celebrity, is it not straining at celebrity a little too much itself? Much of the final scene, especially the Duchess’s solo ‘mad scene’, acquires a surprising gravity, however, reminiscent in its broken chorale and its instrumentation of Busoni; one can see why it would be undercut – ‘Darling, nothing so vulgar as a tragedy,’ one can hear the creators saying – but, in a way, that is a pity, since what follows is once again too clever, too lengthy, and more tedious than anything else.

Performances, however, were of a high standard. Joan Rodgers threw her all into the role of the Duchess, dramatically and vocally, and even succeeded, in that final scene, in engaging one’s heart. The only kindness she has ever experienced, as she laments, is that for which she has paid. Alan Ewing, suffering from a throat infection, coped well with the muiltifarious demands of his roles; one could readily have heard much worse from someone in better health. Iain Paton likewise convinced in his considerably more varied roster of portrayals, lightness and agility of voice in evidence throughout. I find Rebecca Bottone’s high soprano a bit shrill and unvaried, but it chimes with what she is asked to do, and she can act too. Paton and Bottone make a truly grubby pair of rubberneckers, pleasuring themselves at their moral disapproval during the trial: how the Daily Mail would love them and the judge, who follows suit and goes still further. If the constant turnover of roles is confusing – I assume that Lulu is the model here, but there a clear point is being made – then that is no fault of the cast, though the production could sometimes have been more helpful in that respect. It surely does matter precisely who these people are. Diction, however, was not always what it might have been. Timothy Redmond conducted the orchestra with verve and precision, the players responding in kind, clearly relishing the dance rhythms and the array of soloistic colours. Again, if it all becomes a bit loud and unyielding, they are not the ones to blame.

Carlos Wagner’s production plays on the Duchess’s star quality, Conor Murphy’s stylish designs – and if the opera is anything, it is stylish – including outsize beauty products, the most striking of which is the neo-Botticelli compact from which the heroine emerges. The mimed fellatio scene from the electrician at the beginning neatly presages what is to come, though the real thing is actually a little puzzling. When the Duchess is at work on the waiter, a naked, more conventionally alluring man emerges in between them: presumably her fantasy, as opposed to reality, but I am not quite sure that such should be the point here. Her search, at least, does not seem to be for physical perfection. Elsewhere, however, production and performances did the work proud. As for the opera itself, though, celebrity seems more to have been more attained than deconstructed.