Powder her Face - Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, 13 June 2008
Powder her Face loosely documents the fall from grace of Margaret Duchess of Argyll (left, a Madame Yevonde pic), a Paris Hilton prototype who became notorious in the '60's when scandalous pix of her liaison with the so-called 'headless man' (tsk, always frame before you shoot) surfaced in her very public divorce case.
The only time I'd seen it live before this was a rather unsatisfactory concert performance at the Barbican a couple of years back, where Thomas Ades, conducting his own work, turned the volume up so high he all but drowned out the singers for most of the evening. The DVD (Ades conducting again, David Alden directing) is altogether more successful, one of the few operatic DVDs I can watch over again. Perhaps reflecting its composer's generation, the opera seems made for the screen, and the chamber orchestration suffers little from the recording process.
The movie parallels must have chimed with Carlos Wagner, the director of this production, too. Set like an MGM musical on a broad sweeping staircase littered with gigantic cosmetics, it immediately evokes Hollywood glamour. The Duchess even makes her big entrance moviestar-style, rising from a giant powder compact like Botticelli's Venus. The concept resonates effectively with contemporary celebrity culture, but in the process loses some of the opera's innate Englishness. What price the Duchess's glorious snobbery in a society where divadom is not only the norm, but part of the job description? The many American inflections in the jazz and tango tinges of the score are misleading signposts: commentary rather than essence, and frequently ironic.
That said, it does look good, it's always clear which of their multiple parts each singer is playing, and a few clever gestures, like the Electrician's mimed blowjob at the start, proved Wagner's attentiveness to the score.
The only scene which didn't really come off (ha!) was the one Powder her Face is best known for. As the Duchess administers the notorious blowjob, a naked beefcake rises from between her prone partner's legs, and she turns her attention to the new arrival. But only as far up as the knee - this is after all the Royal Opera House. It's an arresting coup de théâtre, but what's it supposed to mean? That she's fantasising about someone more attractive? Big deal. It confuses and sensationalises and ultimately distracts. Any naked body on stage becomes the immediate focus of attention, but this scene more than any other is musically and dramatically all about the Duchess.
The musical side was more reliably handled. Timothy Redmond conducted with flair and a great deal of sensitivity towards the singers, and the crack Southbank Sinfonia tossed off the scarily testing score as if it was easy-peasy. Placing the orchestra well below the level of the singers (something that isn't always done in the Linbury) undoubtedly helped here.
Joan Rodgers resisted the temptation to judge her character and found the depth in the score to produce a sympathetic and moving portrayal of the Duchess, not a heartless nymphomaniac, but simply as a woman looking for love in the wrong places.
Incidentally, the (uncredited) hair and makeup staff at the ROH did an incredible job in transforming Joan Rodgers (below left) into first the '30's beauty (below right) and then the bouffanted dragon of the '60's. We don't usually get close enough to the action to see what an amazing job they can do, but here their attention to detail was evident and stunning.
In support, Rebecca Bottone's limber Baccarat-crystal soprano graced the several parts she played, all with great gusto and a keen eye for the comic. Alan Ewing and Iain Paton, though a little less consistent, were equally effective. Some of the first night reviewers complained of difficulty hearing the words, but it wasn't a problem on this third performance. That nobody fell down the steps in all the manic movement is a small miracle too.