Here at Where's Runnicles we're big fans of Thomas Ades, both as a conductor and composer, not to mention for his work at the Aldeburgh festival. Sadly, this year's event, from which I will be reporting shortly, will he his last as director.
It seems he is moving to bigger things: a production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress with him at the helm is due to open shortly at the Royal Opera. In the meanwhile, there is a near sell-out production of his first opera Powder Her Face. Tickets for this were hard to come by, not least as it is in Covent Garden's Lindbury theatre, a small (the website claims 400 seats, but it looked fewer to me) studio theatre buried underground in what used to be the bowels of the flower hall. It's a nice enough place, though it doesn't appear ideal from a technical perspective, particularly in terms of from where you can light it, but this is fairly common in studio theatres.
The opera tells the story of the fall from grace, to the extent she ever had it, of a notorious duchess. The synopsis in the programme is intentionally vague, for example referring to the infamous fellatio scene as the duchess giving "the Waiter the friendly welcome which has earned her such popularity among the staff". We begin in 1990, as the duchess discovers two staff making fun of her, the electrician miming the aforementioned sex act on the TV remote control as the maid collapses in sung hysterics. We then jump back to 1934, prior to the duke and duchess meeting and are given to understand that the two are as bad as one and other. Then forward through the wedding, the affairs, the divorce and to her eviction from the hotel for non-payment of bills.
The set is interesting. A large white staircase thrusts steeply down towards the audience, the stage is littered with giant tubes of makeup, eyeliner brushes and a compact. The steps themselves cleverly double as cupboards out of which the singers pull most of the props they need. The compact opens up to reveal the duchess (though has to keep spinning round so she can climb in and out unseen).
Ades' music is as interesting as would be expected. There are lovely touches as his score provides phone rings or the rattling of type writers. The South Bank Sinfonia play well under Timothy Redmond. The score also underlines the drama well, unlike some this genuinely conveys shock or other emotions in accord with the script. The the trouble is, while the drama may want to shock, it just doesn't. Nudity on the British stage has long since ceased to be shocking, in these days of Puppetry of the Penis and Harry Potter baring all, a naked man rising up from between the actor's legs an the duchess mimes oral stimulation doesn't really do so. Rather than shocking, it tends just to leave me thinking either, rather you than me, or, it must be colder than I thought, often both. The last time stage nudity shocked me was at the Edinburgh Festival ten years or so ago in a play that featured two naked men doing various things. But now I don't think even something like that would. Time and again we see it - the duke puts on the stockings the maid has removed and all I can think is that he's laddered them. It doesn't help that the actors seem a little embarrassed themselves - I'm sure that's why the duke is wearing underwear beneath his kilt, which get pulled down each time he and the maid do it. This wouldn't matter, but the production doesn't really convince as witty burlesque either.
Another problem is Ades' setting of the vocal parts. In particular Rebecca Bottone as the maid struggles with the high pitch rapid singing - it's not that she sings wrong notes, but that you can't make out a lot of the words. This is also a problem for Alan Ewing as the duke/all-older-male-parts as he delivers his verdict in the divorce trial. Surtitles were required. I made out around half the words, others fared much less well.
Dramatically, the first act does go on a bit, the second scene in 1934 doesn't seem to serve much purpose, but then I couldn't hear many words, and the grace's indiscretion in scene 5 rather goes on. The second act is much tauter, though I'd like to have heard the verdict audibly. The penultimate scene in 1970, as the duchess gives an interview, works best. The actors' hear seem to be enjoying it in a way that doesn't always seem the case in the sexual burlesque. There is a lovely moment as the maid/all-other-non-duchess-female-parts brings on a chair the rear two legs of which have been shortened so it can sit on the stairs. She then proceeds to conduct an interview which goes wrong beautifully: the tape jams and the pencil is strung to the clipboard in such a way that she cannot reach the bottom of the page.
More generally, it doesn't really help that none of the characters provoke the slightest sympathy, by the end of the opera I couldn't really care less what's happened to them. I wasn't bored (though one member of the audience was and somehow managed to fall asleep and snore loudly).
Technically there were more gaffes than there should have been. When the electrician/all-other-minor-young-male-roles gives a song and dance (and just before the steps light up broadway style) the lights went down and the spot came up for less than a second. I'm not sure whether they'd accidently jumped the lighting desk on a cue and couldn't get back, or perhaps the bulb had gone, though from experience that is usually noticeably loud. The big clock that counted the years went only forwards, meaning that from scene one, set in 1990, to scene 2, in 1934, it counted forward, which I found extremely annoying - since it failed to represent the passage of time as it was meant to. Then, in the final scene it failed altogether and took us not to 1990 but to the nonexistent, outside of Pol Pot and the Hindu and Budist calendars, year zero. In a scene where the duchess phoned for room service, an amplified voice answered, or most of the time it did: on its second response the sound operator was very late fading him up.
Worth seeing then, but far from Ades finest hour and not something I'd go out of my way to see again.