Compelling Adès Opera Succeeds in Subterranean Space

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adès,Powder Her Face: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Timothy Redmond (conductor). Ambika P3, University of Westminster, London, 2.4.2014 (CC)

The Duchess: Amanda Roocroft
Maid: Claire Eggington
Electrician: Alexander Sprague
Hotel Manager/Judge: Alan Ewing

My previous reactions to the music of the precocious talent that is Thomas Adès have been mixed, tending towards the negative. And the principal problem – that his music is shockingly clever, cleverly shocking but clever for the sake of cleverness – does seem to remain true at least in part. But the dramatic expertise he shows in Powder Her Face should not be minimised.

This performance was part of ENO’s initiative to locate exciting new spaces for opera. And so the Coliseum was eschewed for the subterranean Ambika P3 of the University of Westminster. The journey there itself was like entering another world (as, I suppose, we did for the subject matter of the opera itself). The bar/mingling space that one is led to is a cross between a students’ union and a parking garage, with a single makeshift bar dispensing a limited repertoire of drinks. To find one’s seat, most people cross the performance space itself, a nice touch; the audience looks down on the stage, almost as if this is some sort of Roman arena. This is a fascinating idea; members of the cast could actually be placed either in the audience (the ‘hotel staff’ were active mopping and suchlike while the audience entered) or just above it (the Judge). The acoustic was rather reverberant for the details of Adès’ complex score to really register, although in fairness the voices had a bloom ordinarily denied them over at St Martin’s Lane.

The opera focuses on Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, a hotel-dwelling socialite who suffers a celebrated, public divorce and who has a voracious sexual appetite. Her downfall is as touching as it is inevitable. The parallel with Berg’s Lulu, another woman who descends from the heights, is clear. Indeed, some of Berg’s scoring seems to have influenced Adès’. Kurt Weill is another marked influence. Outrageous big band references alongside popular dance (tango in particular) and 1930’s ballads to make vivid initial impressions. Philip Henscher’s witty and tight libretto is perfect for Adès’ very concise mode of expression.

The Westminster University space was well used, with the manipulation of the various props managed with expertise. Joe Hill-Gibbins (best known for his work at the Young Vic) places the Judge, the superbly focused Alan Ewing, whose aria-analysis of the Duchess’ misdemeanours is a focal point of the work, up at audience level. Perhaps that is why his words were actually the most audible of the night (there were no trademark surtitles to help up out at any point). Whether The Duchess should be portrayed as old throughout is another matter: projected blow-ups of polaroids tell us the date of each scene (the 1930s, the 1950s, 1970 and a bookending 1990), a neat trick, yet The Duchess’s age moves not one jot.

The vocal writing is treacherous and credit should go to these performers for not only mastering it, but revealing the long-limbed lyricism that underpins the angularity. Disjunct lines became expressive in the same way that good performances of Webern realise the expressivity at the core of that composer’s work. The star of the evening was, of course, the Duchess herself – Amanda Roocroft in superb voice and acting her socks off. No stranger to ENO (RosenkavalierMakropoulos Case, Grimes …), her dramatic grasp was sure throughout. We the audience lived the experience with her thanks to her sheer stage presence. Vocally her voice is lovely, and again the lyricism inherent in Adès’ lines emerged as most poignant. Almost outshining her, though, was the superb soprano Claire Eggington as the Maid. She positively sparkled, both vocally and dramatically. Her grasp of the soundworld was arguably the most firm of all the soloists. Tenor Alexander Sprague’s Electrician is similarly vocally virtuosic, his voice young and virile.

Rivalling the singers for stars of the evening are the instrumentalists of the English National Opera.  Adès’s scoring is characteristically individual, his instrumentation including accordion and piano. Contemporary specialist Timothy Redmond draws superb playing from all. Some of the edges are lost in the acoustic, it is true, but Adès’ characteristic sound was ably projected.

There is no doubting Adès’ expertise as a composer and, indeed, musical dramatist. He has found the palette to draw the listener in to his soundworld (and his Weltanschauung generally) and provide a compelling evening of theatre, ably realised in this stimulating space.

Colin Clarke

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