The Music of POWDER HER FACE Transports Listeners to Another World


By Kyle Bartlett

A swooning accordion gives a glimpse of tango, and half a breath later a pulse of muted trumpet sparks a flash of the Jazz Age; a bumptious bass clarinet groove followed by a fizz of cymbals drives home a punch-line. From the first beat of Thomas Adès’s tragicomic (comi-tragic?) opera Powder Her Face, the listener feels transported to another world. Adès’s musical language here is memory itself – fragmented, dreamlike shards of tunes that seem both familiar and strange at the same time.  Like all memory, Powder Her Face is episodic, exaggerated, and somehow exotic. Its lipstick is a smidge too red, its heels a bit too high, its language rather too salty for polite company. To wit, it is every bit the musical portrait of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll.

Adès renders these scenes from her life with an astonishing range of orchestral color drawn from a mere fifteen players in the orchestra—including two (!) bass saxophones, three bass clarinets, and approximately 40 percussion instruments. His meticulously specific notation calls for virtuosity not just in traditional techniques, but asks the performers to control precisely the location of the bow upon the string, to manipulate the resonance of the piano by sticking Blu-Tack on the strings, and to color the sound of the brass with a cornucopia of different mutes. The result is an aristocratically louche sound-world that shimmers with fine detail even as it portrays outrageous people caught in outrageous circumstances.

The fluency of Adès’s instrumental writing is matched beat-for-beat by vocal writing that is athletic in its virtuosity and fiendish in its complexity. The absurdist comedy is heightened by ridiculously steep jumps from the lowest to the highest reaches of their vocal ranges, or by a recurring polite cough punctuating a decidedly impolite act. The role of the Maid, with her endless staccato laughter and her “Fancy” aria, calls for a coloratura virtuosity that makes the Queen of the Night sound like a frumpy dowager.

Given the skill with which Adès creates this musical portrait, it is easy to forget that Powder Her Face was his Opus 14. The work premiered in 1995, when he was 24 years old, and here and there one can identify the hand of a composer readily familiar with the subtleties of English schoolboy humor. Among the many naughty double- and triple-entendres in the music and the libretto, one delights in Margaret’s repeated calls to room service for “meat.”  Likewise, Adès has little sympathy for the Duchess: she makes her entrance not as herself, but as a drag parody performed by the hotel electrician. One moment of quiet generosity, however, is found near the end of the opera. Adès accompanies the Duchess’s last moment in her hotel room with the sound of rhythmically turning fishing reels. It is, simultaneously, the sound of a sad, lonely woman being reeled into an undeniable fate, and the small, delicate sound of a woman’s life coming undone.

Kyle Bartlett is New Works Administrator for Opera Philadelphia