London is well served for studio-sized contemporary opera at the moment, with Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers playing at the Young Vic and Thomas Adès’ early opus Powder Her Face now in the Linbury Studio. Adès’ later opera The Tempest was revived by the Royal Opera after just a few years, and this 2008 production shares the distinction. It’s one not afforded to many composers or works.
A number of charges could be levelled at Adès – impertinence, cockiness, facility, flimsiness and being too clever by half – but if you doubt the man’s a genius, go and see Powder Her Face. You could criticise it from here to kingdom come for being pastiche-ridden, dramatically clumsy, brash and sordid but it’s also utterly brilliant. It’s the act of a young man jumping off a cliff and staying airborne, even if he frequently flies too close to the sun.
Venezuelan director Carlos Wagner gives it a production to match the composer’s flamboyance and daring. Conor Murphy’s playing area is a vertiginous set of stairs of diminishing width which must give health and safety the screaming abdabs, as tenor Iain Paton charges up them in high heels and Joan Rodgers does a magnificent tumble from top to bottom. It provides just the right level of danger for the piece.
The opera, tells the story, in a far from biographical fashion, of the Duchess of Argyll, through a lifetime of scandal, and sexual and financial incontinence. The real-life character was famously hauled before the courts in 1963 for being photographed giving oral sex to an unidentified man (nobody’s business but theirs surely?) and Adès and his librettist Philip Hensher don’t shy away from giving it to us full-on. In fact, they revel in it.
Rodgers is maybe a little too nice, lacking the vulgarity needed for the full Norma Desmond but she still does a magnificent job, as she emerges from a powder case like a Botticelli Venus and withers to a daub-faced wreck two hours later.
The three other cast members (Alan Ewing, Rebecca Bottone and Iain Paton) jump between characters, cavorting and clowning with ease and vocal dexterity.
One could trace all sorts of musical influences in the score, from Britten to jazz, and to my ears it’s a little too reliant on Strauss, sounding awfully like Ariadne auf Naxos much of the time with Bottone’s maid a skittish Zerbinetta and Paton a chameleon of an Arlecchino (not to mention the sly presentation of a silver rose).
But Adès gives us so much invention, panache and variety, it’s impossible not be dazzled and left aghast that a 24 year old could be so assured and audacious. He may have put on a few more years and considerable maturity since Powder Her Face burst on the scene in 1995 but his prodigious precocity will probably haunt him for the rest of his life. Certainly for now, it remains a quite astonishing piece of work.