Powder her Face | Review
The Lyric, Belfast • Sunday 29 January 2017
Very lucky were the attendees on the final night of NI Opera’s Powder her Face owing to the pre-show talk with the new artistic director Walter Sutcliffe and Ulster Orchestra manager Richard Wigley. While Friday night bid farewell to Oliver Mears with a prosecco reception, Sunday night welcomed Sutcliffe with a Q&A session in the Naughton Studio. In his tenure as artistic director, Mears has developed strong aesthetic values across production style, along with an engaging opera platform making opera accessible to a wider audience. Fathomable from the pre-show talk, Sutcliffe is riding the tide and is very much on board when it comes to community involvement. Despite being hectored, Sutcliffe assuredly invited us to forward our feedback and to work in collaboration, with NI Opera’s best interests at heart. Although private about his prospective programming, insinuations were provided; early baroque opera is on the radar, but even more stirring is the prospect of a new commission featuring on the playbill, and foreign language opera is back on the menu! Even though 2017 opened with a riveting, contemporary opera, it seems any more of the sort is off the menu until next season; nonetheless, what a start to 2017 for NI Opera.
This January our post-Christmas NI Opera palates were cleansed with Thomas Adés’ Powder her Face (1995). Reporting the lead up and aftermath of the divorce case that shook 1950s Britain to the core, Powder her Face presents the Duchess of Argyll and her ultimate demise. On a quest for power, aristocracy and media spotlight, we accompany the Duchess on her downward spiral into debt, bankruptcy, and complete isolation. The Duchess is no doubt on par with twentieth-century operatic heroines such as Salome, Lulu and Turandot, but Powder her Face establishes an elusive closeness that is undoubtedly due to the intimate four person cast and chamber ensemble which intensifies our absorption in the Duchess’ self-inflicted defeat. Under the direction of Antony McDonald and the baton of Nicholas Chalmers, NI Opera captures the obscurity of Philip Hensher’s libretto, the intrinsic complexities of Ades’ score resulting in absolute audience immersion.
Chalmers and the Ulster Orchestra boldly seize the auditorium with the brassy swagger the overture deserves and we are swept into 120 minutes of sheer musical sublime. Accompanying the overture, choreographer Lucy Burg presents two masked bunnies that dance a raunchy tango and set the erotic melange of music, drama and dance that is to follow. Vocal prowess and superb acting are seen in Daire Halpin’s cockney articulated ‘Fancy’ aria, Adrian Dwyer’s playful lounge lizard, and Stephen Richardson’s booming, droll judge. Scenes featuring nappies and whips, cackles and grunts, along with timbales and bongos allow for our decadent enjoyment in the exploitation of scandalous infidelity that climaxes in despair – the Duchess’ despair.
Mary Plazas is the star of the show. Mesmeric are her vocals, at times neurotic her acting and most importantly, automatic is our immersion in her turbulent whirlwind of sex and adultery. As she powders her face for the last time we are caught in an inevitable state of sympathy and compassion as she pathetically attempts one more act of seduction. Bunnies bounce back on stage to the accordion inspired ‘Ghost Epilogue’ recapitulating the inaugural playful tone and bringing our night at the opera to a close.
Upcoming NI Opera productions include a concert performance of La Boheme with the Ulster Orchestra in the Ulster Hall in April, followed by Ireland’s premiere of Handel’s Radamisto with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in the Grand Opera House in May.