There is a scene in Carlos Wagner's daring production, here receiving its first revival, that scales the heights of stylish symbolism. The humiliation of the Duchess (Joan Rodgers) is made flesh as she crumples gracefully atop a soaring staircase and falls to its distant foot. Appalled though the lady would be by such a vulgarism, it's a proper wow moment.
Thomas Adès was 24 when he unveiled his first opera. Powder Her Face is a tale of illicit sex among the great and good, based on a forty-year-old scandal involving the late Duchess of Argyll. The composer's youthful iconoclasm screams out, sometimes quite literally, whether with laughter (supplied by Rebecca Bottone's strident Maid and some equally piercing high wind) or through its unblinking depiction of aristocratic despair. The opera delights in its exploration of furtive sexuality – a quality that Wagner embraces from the outset, without a trace of coyness, in a lewd episode involving an Electrician (Iain Paton) and a TV remote.
The music's colours have tints of Berg, Britten and Maxwell Davies, yet the voice is fresh and contemporary. It is a young man's statement that says ‘I've arrived'. Conductor Timothy Redmond attacks the score with precision and exuberance as he marshals his four singers and a 15-strong ensemble of crack musicians.
If Powder Her Face has a shortcoming, it is the relentless torrent of its words. Philip Hensher's libretto is original and bold, but it can be overly dense. Whereas a more mature composer would probably have stripped away some of the fat, Adès allows his score to be too text-dependent, and for all its richness there is, just occasionally, a hint of underscore about the music. His ear for balance is occasionally suspect, too, particularly when the female singers struggle to project their words in high tessitura above the heavy instrumental textures.
What wonders Adès conjures from his band, even so. Assertive statements by the saxophones, brass and percussion are complemented by delicate brush strokes from the accordion and string quartet. Such moments as an extraordinary second-act passage for harp and piano – close relatives yet rare bedfellows – typify the score's thrilling originality.
Alan Ewing growls eloquently in his roles as Duke, Judge and (Adès' nod to Death in Venice, this) a Hotel Manager. If Iain Paton's comic touch is that little bit surer in his own multiple roles, it is Ewing who steals the diction honours and casts the strongest shadow. Bottone could perhaps have found more depth and variation in her six characters, but Joan Rodgers proves once again what a formidable performer she is, finding dignity and pathos amid the débris of a lonely woman's existence.
Wagner occasionally tries too hard, and a few slapslick moments fall flat, but as a feat of imaginative stagecraft this production will take some beating. The designer, Conor Murphy, certainly makes life difficult for the singers with his treacherous set: there isn't a flat surface in sight, and those stairs are a killer. Yet the performers, all of whom are returning to roles they played in the production's 2008 incarnation, negotiate its perils with fluent ease.
Tom Baert choreographs heads, hands and feet with witty freshness as well as making his own unadorned appearance, rising from the Duchess's giant powder puff like a male Botticelli Venus during the opera's notorious fellatio scene and bringing a whole new meaning to in-yer-face theatre. Plucky Joan never misses a beat.
- Mark Valencia