Opera review: Powder Her Face

By Cathy Desmond

National Opera House, Wexford

5 stars

“A 1960s sex-and-Polaroids scandal centring around an allegedly sex-crazed duchess seemed perfect for Cheltenham” observed Philip Hensher on his 1990s libretto for Powder Her Face.

The opera based on the scandalous high-society divorce proceedings and fall from grace of the Duchess of Argyll is hailed as a modern classic. How would it stand up for an Irish audience, two decades later?

The production presented by the newly launched Irish National Opera as their first offering was an engaging night of musical theatre that enthralled from start to finish.

Leaving aside the musical element, the production worked on a purely theatrical level. Staging by Antony McDonald recalled the gay privileged world of Noel Coward plays. Surtitles allowed you to savour every nuance in the sharp witty text. Daire Halpin and Adrian Dwyer nimbly moved in and out of a bundle of supporting roles, and danced very well too.

Stephen Richardson is larger than life as the caddish kilt-clad Duke. His blustering judge is in the noble tradition of a pompous Gilbert and Sullivan buffoons and the judgement scene is one of the comic highlights. Star of the show is soprano Mary Plazas who gives an extraordinary performance as Duchess over the course of six decades from breezy debutant to fragile old lady ignominiously evicted from her Mayfair hotel. The sex scene which has contributed much to the work’s tabloid notoriety was deftly delivered.

It is worth noting that artistic freedom directors enjoy today in Ireland. It’s in the lifetime of most theatre goers that the dropping of a condom on stage was considered sufficient obscenity to mount a court case.

What makes the evening fly is the superb 15 piece band. We were shaken by the low sounds of not just one but three bass clarinets. Dermot Dunne on accordion evoked the world of the hotel salon ensemble. Alex Petcu sitting amid a barrage of percussion added brilliant crash, bang, wallop to Thomas Adés’ rich and vivid score. You are unlikely to see a better production. Composer Tomas Ades is due to attend at the final performance in Tralee. Well worth catching.

Touring to Kilkenny, Sligo, Dublin and Tralee until March 9


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