Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review - NI Opera's Powder Her Face (Lyric Theatre until 29 January)

Just ten weeks after their spectacular performance of Don Giovanni, NI Opera are back on stage with the smaller modern chamber piece Powder Her Face.

The plots of operas are often based around big personalities who make bad decisions and suffer the consequences; forbidden love and tragic death; power and downfall; secrets, scandals, shame and surprises. Rather than invent a central character, Thomas Adès took the real life story of Margaret Whigham (who later would become the Duchess of Argyll) as the basis for Powder Her Face.
“I was beautiful, I was famous, I was young, I was rich …”

On the Lyric stage, soprano Mary Plazas embodies the wealthy promiscuous woman who behaves as if money can buy her love and happiness. As the fifteen piece orchestra crank up Adès’ jazzy yet discordant musical opening, we quickly establish that the Duchess was disrespected and a figure of ridicule in her later life. The story then zooms back to the 1930s to follow her loose living and predatory conduct, marriage to the Duke of Argyll (no saint himself) and the reason for her divorce and fall from favour in high society.

Dressed in black, Plazas portrays a woman who teeters along the fine line separating confidence from vulnerability. “Will they write songs for me?” the young Duchess wonders. Oddly, other than occasional accessories and slower movement, little attempt is made to physically depict her changing age throughout the two act opera.

Daire Halpin provides much of the humour singing a number of roles in different wigs and costumes as maid, waitress, high society journalist and mistress. She gets the fun arias to sing and dances impeccably with tenor Adrian Dwyer who plays an electrician, waiter and delivery boy.

The other source of mirth is the set which is dominated by a larger than life mattress. A chaise (très) longue adds to the pantomime feel of the some of the scenes while Stephen Richardson’s entrance down some unanticipated steps onto the bed as the Duke adds to the symbolism of the piece. The judge’s bench after the interval is another unexpected but smile-inducing surprise built into the set. And what other opera would include vacuum cleaners, carrots, a lobster and a fluffy stuffed poodle as props?

Director and designer Antony McDonald has allowed this small scale opera to swell with its big set and big gestures. The small cast have clearly mastered a lot of choreography on top of the difficult score and the more intimate setting brings the acting more to the fore than than some of the other larger scale NI Opera productions I’ve reviewed. With its intimate theme, each cast member shows a lot more leg – and the case of Adrian Dwyer, buttocks – than normal as they expose the Duchess’ unravelling lifestyle and behaviour that is at the heart of her explosive divorce.

It’s a sign of how times have changed in Northern Ireland that the dramatic suggestion of a blow job fellatio now reduces a Belfast audience to nervous giggles inside a theatre rather than placards and protests outside on the pavement.

Many of the Ulster Orchestra performers under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers in the pit assisted with the enormous number of percussion instruments (including a swanee whistle) in the score. Some of the lyrics were drowned out by the musicians: a real shame given the English libretto and the relatively unfamiliar tale. NI Opera’s new artistic director Walter Sutcliffe needs to revisit the accessibility issue of surtitles. A bigger distraction was an audience member in F26 who conversed with people around her in a loud voice that must have carried onto the stage never mind back several rows to where I was sitting.

Interviewed earlier in January, NI Opera’s outgoing artistic director Oliver Mears talked about the woman at the heart of the opera:
“She was a colourful personality and certainly some of the things on stage in this show are colourful as well. Truthful to the type of life she led. I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous or salacious … it’s based on a real story, and the scandal focussed around the headless man photos that were the core of the divorce case in the sixties … you can’t escape that side of the story and be truthful to what her life was.”

The version of Adès opera as performed on the Lyric stage certainly stays true to the public understanding of the salacious life of the so-called ‘Dirty Duchess’. The creative team deliver a well produced, well directed, well acted and well sung performance While the Duchess definitely falls within the purview of normal operatic themes, I still left the show wondering whether she was a fitting cultural subject?

Yet in a society that values prosperity and satisfaction above benevolence and service, Powder Her Face is a reminder that neither money nor sex buys happiness, while the pursuit of both can be ruinous to your soul and health.
“It’s about people with extreme attitudes, extreme emotions, living on the edge in terms of their behaviour, so it’s not surprising that for some it’s a little bit too much to stomach. Opera has always been shocking down the decades.”

When your money is spent, your possessions have gone, your reputation is depleted and all you are left with is old age and notoriety, what do you have left?

Powder Her Face continues at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until Sunday 29 January. Co-producers Opera Theatre Company will be taking the show on an island-wide tour during February and March.

Photo credit: Patrick Redmond

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