Powder Her Face, Op. 14 (1995), is a chamber opera in two acts by the British composer Thomas Adès, with an English libretto by Philip Hensher. The opera is 2 hours 20 minutes long. It was commissioned by the Almeida Opera, a part of London's Almeida Theatre, for performances at the Cheltenham Music Festival.
The subject of the opera is the "Dirty Duchess", Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in 1963 during her divorce proceedings. The opera is explicit in its language and detail.
It was first performed on 1 July 1995 in Cheltenham, with Jill Gómez in the leading role. Reviews were generally good, but the opera became notorious for its musical depiction of fellatio: British radio station Classic FM considered it unsuitable for transmission.
The music of the sexually themed opera combines influences ranging from Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and Benjamin Britten to Kurt Weill and the tangos of Ástor Piazzolla.
Describing the overall impact of the libretto and the theatricality of the entire production, Alex Ross notes:
"Hensher seized the opportunity to create the first onstage blow job in opera history, but he also twisted the story into something more generalised and expressionistic: Margaret becomes a half-comic, half-tragic figure, a nitwit outlaw. There were clear parallels with Alban Berg’s epic of degradation, Lulu
[...] The libretto reads like a nasty farce, but it takes on emotional breadth when the music is added. With a few incredibly seductive stretches of thirties-era popular melody, Adès shows the giddy world that the Duchess lost, and when her bright harmony lurches down to a terrifying B-flat minor he exposes the male cruelty that quickened her fall. Adès's harmonic tricks have a powerful theatrical impact: there’s a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments".
After the premiere there were five London performances at the Almeida Theatre.
On 8 June 2006, there was a concert performance at the Barbican Centre, London, with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer.
From 11 to 22 June 2008, it was performed at the Linbury Studio Theatre in the Royal Opera House, London, with the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Timothy Redmond, and Joan Rodgers as the Duchess.
The U.S. premiere was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 10, 1998. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was conducted by Robert Spano with Marie O'Brien as the Duchess, Heather Buck in several parts, and Allen Schrott. Boston first heard the opera, as produced by Opera Boston, on June 6, 2003. The Boston Modern Opera Project was conducted by Gil Rose with Janna Baty as the Duchess; Ms. Buck and Mr. Schrott reassumed their roles.
The New York City Opera performed the opera in February 2013 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a production by Jay Scheib and starring the soprano Allison Cook as the Duchess of Argyll. The Opera Company of Philadelphia performed the opera in June 2013, with Patricia Schuman in the lead role.
In March 2016 the opera had its Danish premiere at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, directed by Orpha Phelan with sets/costumes by Madeleine Boyd, conducted by Robert Houssart and with Anne Margarethe Dahl as the Duchess.Scene 1 – 1990 (The hotel). An electrician and a maid are discovered by the Duchess in her suite, ridiculing her. The scene closes with the entrance of a male figure.
Scene 2 – 1934 (A country House). The Duchess's confidante and a lounge lizard discuss her recent divorce. The Duke makes an impressive entrance.
Scene 3 – 1936. The Duke and Duchess's wedding is described in a fancy aria by a waitress.
Scene 4 – 1953. The Duchess stays at the hotel and seduces a waiter. The waiter accepts a tip and reveals the recurrence of the Duchess's deeds.
Scene 5 – 1953. The Duke visits his mistress. They flirt and she suggests that the Duchess's serial seductions are the talk of London.
Scene 6 – 1955. Two rubberneckers comment extravagantly on the divorce case. The judge denigrates the Duchess's morals.
Scene 7 – 1970. The Duchess is interviewed by a society journalist. Her bill is delivered.
Scene 8 – 1990. The hotel manager tells the Duchess to leave the hotel, since she is unable to pay her bills. She attempts to seduce him but with no success. She departs.
Epilogue. The electrician and the maid surface from beneath the bed and destroy the hotel room.
The opera is scored for an orchestra of fifteen players, with much doubling, and a large range of percussion instruments. 1. Clarinet 1 in B flat, doubling bass clarinet, soprano saxophone and bass saxophone. 2. Clarinet 2 in A, doubling bass clarinet, alto saxophone and bass saxophone. 3. Clarinet 3 in A, doubling bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and swanee whistle. 4. Horn in F. 5. Trumpet in C. 6. Tenor trombone. 7. Percussion (one player): two tubular bells, snare drum, flat bass drum, pedal bass drum, small bongo, two timbales, rototom, clash cymbals, two suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, hi-hat, three temple blocks, three brake drums, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, vibraslap, washboard, cabaça, large fishing reel, whip, lion's roar, popgun, scrap metal, electric bell. 8. Harp, doubling electric bell and fishing reel. 9. Button accordion, doubling electric bell and fishing reel. 10. Piano, doubling fishing reel. 11 & 12. Violins 1 & 2. 13. Viola. 14. Cello. 15. Double bass (doubling fishing reel).US premiere performance review by Bernard Holland: "Making Light Of a Duchess Given to Night Music", The New York Times, December 10, 1998
"...an opera about an arresting, beautiful, inwardly inadequate, and finally tragic woman, whom [Adès and Hensher] imagined as 'all cladding powder, scent, painting, furs, nothing inside', whose life finally crumbles about her. The form of the work might be described as 'cabaret-opera'..." (Andrew Porter, The programme note)
"The harp is the Duchess's particular instrument, 'swathing' her with perfume, jewels, rich fabrics, all the trappings of decorative exterior" (Andrew Porter, The programme note)
"Journalist and writer Paul Griffiths called the music of Powder Her Face 'the music of the future', written by one who has 'the panache of a great opera composer'." (Andrew Porter, The programme note)
"Camp, spiteful, sneering little opera unworthy of Thomas Adès' talent. This bitchy little piece is based on the infamous Duchess of Argyll (she of the 'headless man' sex photos), seen in her last impoverished days, mocked by hotel staff and presumably smart-arse literati looking for a target for their adult wit. This performance is announced as 'semi-staged'; whether that includes the blow-job that's written into it is about the only point of interest in this arid little piece of superannuated adolescent exhibitionism. The composer conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in his pointlessly nifty score, with a cast led by the expert Mary Plazas and Valdine Anderson." (review in Time Out, London, 8 June 2006)
Powder Her Face was made into a motion picture by Britain's Channel 4 and shown on Christmas Day 1999. The film was released on DVD in the UK for Christmas 2005; the DVD includes a documentary film about Adès by Gerald Fox made at around the same time.Audio CD: Conducted by the composer with the Almeida Ensemble and performed by Jill Gómez, Valdine Anderson, Niall Morris, and Roger Bryson. Recorded 1998, released 1 October 1999. (EMI: CDS5566492)
DVD: Directed by David Alden, conducted by the composer with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and performed by Mary Plazas, Heather Buck, Daniel Norman, and Graeme Broadbent. Released in 2006 in the US (DC10002).