A fair crack of the whip for risqué Powder Her Face

A fair crack of the whip for risqué Powder Her Face
Mary Plazas in the production of Powder Her Face, by Thomas Adés.

Irish National Opera’s true tale of a sex-mad duchess has been deemed suitable only for over-16s, writes Cathy Desmond

THE Irish National Opera company opens its inaugural season with a risqué contemporary classic by British composer Thomas Adés.

Powder Her Face is a darkly comic opera written in 1995 with a libretto by Philip Hensher, based on the life and times of a famous British socialite. Rich society beauty, Margaret Wigham was named debutant of the year in 1930 and also inspired Cole Porter to write ‘You’re the Top’.

Nicknamed by the tabloids ‘the Dirty Duchess’, her divorce proceedings from her second husband, the Duke of Argyll, in 1963, were the stuff of scandal and salacious gossip as the explicit details filled the newspapers on a daily basis. A diary stolen from her desk was rumoured to catalogue her lovers, 88 of whom were cited in the proceedings. The names of cabinet ministers and Hollywood actors were alleged to be amongst her many consorts.

‘Sex selfies’ might seem to be a present-day media pre-occupation but the duchess was ahead of her time. Her notoriety was sealed when the prosecution produced a series of Polaroid photos which pictured the duchess, dressed in nothing but her signature three strands of pearls, performing a sex act on the infamous ‘headless man’, so called as his head did not appear in the frame.

In granting the divorce, the judge milked the occasion, with his summing up stretching to 50,000 words and delivered over four hours. His words, echoed in the opera, described the duchess as unfit for marriage, perverted and insatiable, with sexual predilections “seldom found north of Marrakech”.

This production, first seen in Belfast last year, reunites a cast of four singers who sang the roles in the final production of Oliver Mears at Northern Ireland Opera before his departure for the top job at Covent Garden.

The role of duchess is one of the most challenging in the soprano repertoire. The British soprano Mary Plazas first sang the role over 20 years ago when she was cast in the first staged production at the Almeida in London in 1995.

Acclaimed for her acting as well as her vocal skills, Plazas has enjoyed a solid career since emerging from the Royal Northern College of Music.

The work was a co-production with Opera Theatre Company now absorbed into the new Irish National Opera Company. OTC prided themselves on their “sassy” productions. Selina Cartmell’s 2015 production of Rigoletto didn’t hold back on depicting a sex and drug-fuelled mayhem and carried a similar age restriction.

Daire Halpin and Stephen Richardson in Powder Her Face.
Daire Halpin and Stephen Richardson in Powder Her Face.

Portas admits she wasn’t too enthused with the idea of the role, but a meeting with Adés convinced her otherwise.

“He sold it to me scene by scene. You couldn’t say no. The duchess is a fantastic role to play. You play her throughout the time of her life. I feel I‘m the right age now to play her as I am somewhere in the middle where we need to have her in the play. You find a bit more space in your head I think when you are older, and I feel that I have come to a quieter place with her now.”

Although contemporary opera can induce a degree of apprehension, Plazas describes the score as being “very accessible”. As the plot moves through the decades of her life, Adés’ score reflects the sound world of the society she moved in with echoes of pop and cabaret songs of and the tangos of Ástor Piazzolla.

Among the quirky instruments called for in the pit of 15 musicians are fishing reels, scrap metal and a drum delightfully known as a ‘lion’s roar’.

Plazas describes the aria dealing with the event that was pivotal to the duchess’s notoriety as the most difficult thing she has ever sung. But she adds: “The opera is as much about humanity and the base humanness of life that everybody can relate to. That struck me as being more important than this one scene which is challenging.

“I hope people will come and will feel something from it. The first half is wonderful but the second act is extraordinary as her life unravels when the society that she thought she belonged to turn against her.”

Powder Her Face opens at the National Opera House Wexford on Saturday and tours to Kilkenny Navan, Sligo, Dublin and Tralee. Not suitable for under 16s. Composer Thomas Adés will give a pre-performance talk in Tralee on March 9

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