Powder Her Face

Northern Ireland's first production of Thomas Adés's notorious, sex-fuelled opera holds a mirror to modern society and the perils of promiscuity

All photos by Patrick Redmond

A man dressed in a blue electrician’s boiler suit and wearing a black rabbit mask crawls from underneath the heavy curtain, swiftly joined by a similarly cowled hotel maid. A surreal and erotically Kubrickian overture ensues as the pair dance and conjoin in various sexualised positions; a taste of things to come from the controversial opera Powder Her Face which this weekend celebrates its Northern Irish premiere at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.

Written by Thomas Adés and with a libretto from Philip Hensher, Powder Her Face is a darkly comic opera about the scandalous life of the late Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. First performed at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, on July 1 1995, it has since become a notoriously contentious production which has long divided the opinion of both traditionalists and the avant-garde.

Beginning and ending in 1990 at the Grosvenor Hotel, London, and spanning five decades between 1934 and 1970, Adés’ opera takes a critical and voyeuristic look at the life of a woman who, at the time of her death, was suspected to have had nearly 100 separate lovers.

Mary Plazas (Duchess), Adrian Dwyer (Electrician) & Daire Halpin (Maid)

Having been written at the turn of the 20th century, the stylised and deeply erotic performance is by all accounts a modern opera. It is sophisticated in all the right places – Adés' intricate score here masterfully performed by the Ulster Orchestra - and yet resolutely modern in director/designer Anthony McDonald’s contemporary staging.

At the epicentre is Adés’ Duchess played by the superb Mary Plazas, whose fitful charisma and powerful singing voice easily keeps the audience engaged for the two hour run time. The opera spans decades, but Plazas convincingly embodies the young, naive and sex-fuelled mid-20th century socialite as well as the somberly reflective and somewhat eccentric devorcée of the 1970s and ‘90s.

Although mostly based around events between the 1930s and ‘50s, Powder Her Face can easily be seen as a cautionary tale – a prelude of sorts - to the present day phenomenon that is the sex scandal. But in place of smartphones and the web it's the recently invented Polaroid camera that's used to capture and spread lurid images of the Dutchess, helping her gain notoriety most notably during the historic divorce trial with the Duke of Argyll in 1955.

Stephen Richardson (Hotel Manager)

The importance of this technology is not lost on Adés nor McDonald whose dynamic yet spartan set design itself reflects that of a Polaroid print-out (the company logo is even projected onto the set as a permanent feature).

What makes Powder Her Face particularly special, however, is in the way it constantly engages and challenges its audience, especially in regards to how one feels about the Duchess and her actions. There is abundant comedy, innuendo and sexual metaphors, but there is also poignant social commentary on the subject of feminism, human rights and class warfare.

For instance, one of the show’s best and final scenes is a depiction of an interview Her Grace grants with a journalist in 1970. It is a wistful, lonely and reflective Duchess we see as she adapts to a drastically different social climate in which there’s ‘concrete everywhere and buggery is legal.’

Mary Plazas (Duchess) & Stephen Richardson (Hotel Manager)

As she’s eventually evicted from her semi-permanent lodgings at the Grosvenor, loveless and broke, her egocentricity gives way to melancholy which, somehow, resonates with the audience in the form of pity and respect.

Why should the viewer care for such a seemingly self-centred and narcissistic woman? In a time where a Duke could easily keep a mistress without hesitation or fear of persecution, Margaret dares to rebel against the patriarchy.

Whether or not the publicity of her actions are morally defendable is not for the audience to judge, nor is that the opera’s intention. Instead it forces the viewer to take an inward look and see the reflections in their own celebrity-obsessed lives.

Daire Halpin (Maid) & Stephen Richardson (Hotel Manager)

With images like the Dutchess' Polaroids now so readily available – and easy to produce - as well as the viral stars made on a daily basis, Powder Her Face is a stark reminder that almost anybody today can have their own public downfall.

For forthcoming productions from Northern Ireland Opera's 2016/17 season visit www.niopera.com. To see what's coming up at the Lyric Theatre go to www.lyrictheatre.co.uk.