‘Powder Her Face’ continues to dazzle

Almost 20 years since it was written, and after nearly 300 worldwide performances, Thomas Adès’s first opera, Powder Her Face, clearly still has dazzling power and potency. It is hard to believe that this most consummate work was written by a 24 year-old, but then that young man was Adès, whose prodigious musical talent was awe-inspiring even as a teenager. Two recent US productions – at New York City Opera and Opera Philadelphia – have once again proved that this opulent, raunchy and stylistically diverse work is here to stay.
 
NEW YORK CITY OPERA
‘The music of Powder Her Face manages to be eclectic in a way that never sounds like pastiche and always sounds like Adès. Set into the spiky texture of much of the score, its occasional lilting snippets of 1930s-style popular songs could, in other hands, be the stuff of simple-minded parody. But Mr. Adès always brings in an unexpected note, a destabilizing rhythm, a mood that won’t stay put. It is a style in which one thing flows endlessly, effortlessly into the next, just as the characters constantly change their costumes and the staccato brass tweets at the end of the overture lead seamlessly into the Maid’s laughter in the opening scene.’
The New York Times (Zachary Woolfe), 8 February 2013
 
‘In this fanciful tale of the Duchess of Argyll — a real-life 1950s British beauty whose husband divorced her on 88 counts of adultery — the notorious lady makes a pass at a room-service waiter. As her aria subsides to a strangled murmur, 25 nude male extras crowd into the room like gym-toned spirits of one-night stands past… In most operas, such lurid staging would seem over the top. But here it’s a perfect fit with the nerve-jangling score, which sounds like Stravinsky, Ravel and Alban Berg run through a Cuisinart.’
New York Post (James Jorden), 18 February 2013
 
OPERA PHILADELPHIA
‘Opera Philadelphia pulled off its greatest piece of work perhaps in several seasons, with a gorgeously sung and smartly crafted production of Powder Her Face… With only 17 musicians in the pit, Adès has enough confidence in his listener to be constantly turning on a dime… Pluralism reigns. Composers have argued as much for decades, but surely no one has done so as emphatically, and so beautifully within the framework of single pieces, as Adès. Powder Her Face was premiered 18 years ago, and yet its cascading pastiche now seems only more a product of our time.’
Philadelphia Inquirer (Peter Dobrin), 11 June 2013
 
‘Was it really as far back as 1995 that Thomas Adès premiered Powder Her Face? It hardly seems so; his music and Philip Hensher’s English libretto seem fresh enough to have been written just yesterday… Opera Philadelphia has put her life back on stage for us in a production as gorgeously staged and costumed as it is sung… Powder Her Face is a reminder that even in modern times, the stuff of great dramatic tragedy still exists, and that a great composer can bring it out and illustrate it through his work. It is well worth adding to the regular modern operatic repertoire.’
Broadway World (Marakay Rogers), 12 June 2013