POWDER HER FACE Airs the Dirty Laundry of a Dirty Duchess
“She is a beast to an exceptional degree.”
“She is a Don Juan among women.”
“She is insatiable, unnatural and altogether fairly appalling.”
These are just some of the epithets hurled at Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, in Thomas Adès’ provocative first opera, Powder Her Face. The then 24-year-old composer based his 1995 work on Britain’s so-called “Dirty Duchess,” whose sensational divorce trial, complete with explicit Polaroids and allegations of depraved sexual exploits, riveted Britain in 1963.
The Duke bitterly divorced Margaret on grounds of her nymphomania, producing in court those compromising photos along with a list of her 88 ‘conquests,’ including three members of Britain’s Royal Family and Hollywood stars like Bob Hope, Maurice Chevalier, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and David Niven. In her prime, the Duchess’s beauty was so well known she was mentioned in Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top.” She and the Duke lived in Scotland's grand Inverary Castle, featured decades later on the hit BBC TV series Downton Abbey.
Adès and librettist Philip Hensher revel in the licentiousness that spilled into the British tabloids, presenting Margaret’s rise as a wealthy, look-at-me party girl – a Lindsay, Paris and Kim lusting for status in the pre-paparazzi, pre-Internet age. The opera is perhaps most infamous for its musical depiction of a sex act between the Duchess and a waiter.
But the heart of the opera lies in its depiction of the aging Duchess’ fall from grace. In Opera Philadelphia’s new production of Powder Her Face created by director Will Kerley and set designer Tom Rogers, the audience will feel for the aging ‘it girl,’ living alone in a hotel room she cannot pay for, surrounded by the possessions she has accrued through decades of materialism. One by one, memories emerge from various dressers and doors, until they threaten to swallow her up.
Hailed as “a masterpiece of contemporary music drama” by The New York Times, Powder Her Face is presented from June 7-16, 2013 as part of the Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman Theater.
Please be advised that Powder Her Face features adult situations which are inappropriate for young audiences.
The Aurora Series is generously underwritten by the Wyncote Foundation.