Writer: Thomas Adès
Director: Antony McDonald
Conductor: Nicholas Chalmers
Reviewer: Colm G Doran
The Lyric Theatre is host to the Irish premiere of Powder Her Face, a co-production between Northern Ireland Opera and Opera Theatre Company. Written by Thomas Adès, directed by Antony McDonald, accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra, and conducted by Nicholas Chalmers, this piece tells the story of the divorce and salacious sex scandals of the Duchess of Argyll. As an audience, we are the voyeurs of her glory years and her subsequent destitution. With a cast of only four; two sopranos Mary Plazas (Duchess) and Daire Halpin (Maid), tenor Adrian Dwyer (electrician) and bass Stephen Richardson (Hotel Manager), the story is told in eight scenes that are broken up by a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign that informs us of the year. However, three of the scenes take place in the mid-fifties so it is difficult to remember what year we have just had, and whether we are going forward or back in time. Apart from Plazas, the cast multi-role throughout the piece playing a variety of characters from a reporter to a cockney man-on-the-street, to an extremely sexist Judge – and they do so with incredible energy to great success.
The piece opens on Halpin and Dwyer wearing black latex bunny eared masks that conceal their faces entirely. They perform a rather lurching tango to stunning orchestration which they then repeat at the finale of the piece. If this is supposed to represent the shadows of the Duchess’ past it is ineffective, we don’t meet the Duchess until well into the first scene, so this bunny tango – while performed beautifully – stands alone as an ill-fitting frame that clashes against the piece within. The first scene showcases high comedy as the maid and electrician of the hotel are in the Duchess’ room, mocking her; ‘they wrote songs about me you know, beautiful songs.’ The electrician slowly dons the hallmarks of the Duchess – shoes, wig, fur and begins to rove around the room as the maid laughs and assists him. The Duchess returns and sees all: ‘So this is what it has come to…take off my coat.’ It is clear in the first scene that the Duchess is no longer the icon that she once was, she is reflective and melancholic about the life she had. This is clearly the impetus for the piece to jump back and forward in time to show us different periods of her life. This opening scene is the first time three of the four cast perform in unison, and although the effect is desirable – the words are all but lost. Despite the three singers singing in different registers, it is still incredibly difficult to follow what they are saying, but the scene is energetic enough to hold attention.
Although the thrust (pardon the pun) of the piece is the sex scandals of the Duchess (and the odd fascination of the Duke with dressing as a baby) for the most part the acts are only suggested or playfully imagined. However, in the fourth scene of the piece the Duchess invites a young waiter to her room to give him (as the programme states) a friendly welcome. The reality is that she fellates him mid-aria. This caused quite a stir in the auditorium; a stunned silence mingled with the slight peal of nervous laughter. There were several empty seats after the interval and it isn’t too difficult to guess why. But despite the shock of that spectacle; it was truthful, well-choreographed, and extremely effective. As Oliver Mears, the artistic director, was quoted previously saying: ‘Opera by its very nature has always been controversial.’
The standout scene was undeniably the trial that saw the stunning set design of a luxurious hotel room transformed into a court room complete with an animated judge, two dutiful clerks and the Duchess, whose once simple black dress was now embellished with layers and layers of flowing material. A long black veil covering her face conjures up images of Queen Victoria, unflinching and stoic throughout judgement being passed. From this point the piece is mostly showcasing the Duchess in the latter stages of her life; she is interviewed for a magazine and amid relaying beauty tips, becomes unhinged and spouts racist slurs concerning modern society. Plazas is sensational at bringing to life the loftiness and arrogance of the Duchess that on a coin flip becomes earth shattering vulnerability, fear and mental distress. By the close of the piece she is reduced to a barely clothed, slightly hunched, distressed shadow. The line: ‘the only people who were good to me, were paid for it’ is a devastating blow.
Having never seen an opera in it’s entirety before, there are certainly parts of the performance this reviewer found difficult to follow, mainly due to loss of diction and distinction between singers during choral moments. However, McDonald’s stage design is stunning, the performances are uniformly energetic and committed, and the orchestration is richly textured and incredibly moving. The several curtain calls are more than well deserved, hopefully this overwhelming reaction will open the door to many more operas being mounted in the Lyric Theatre.
Runs until 29 January 2017 | Image: Patrick Redmond