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Thomas Ades Powder Her Face

The Duchess –
Mary Plazas

The Maid – Heather Buck

The Electrician – Dan Norman

Hotel Manager – Graeme Broadbent

Conductor – Thomas Ades

Stage Director – David Alden

Set Designer– Jennifer Lernke

Costume Designer – Gideon Davey

TV and Film Director – Margaret Williams


Digital Classics DVD DC10002

Film Version for Channel 4 Television, 1999– [110 minutes]


Powder Her Face - the face being that of Her Grace The Duchess of Argyll – but let me start on a personal note. My mother, who happily is still very much alive, is a contemporary of the late duchess, and whilst they were never part of the same “set” they moved in similar circles with their paths crossing on numerous occasions, and I can recall tales of the glamorous duchess from long before she became the notorious duchess.


She was the daughter of a Scottish industrialist, and after a childhood spent largely in New York , she made her London debut in 1930. The dazzlingly beautiful young heiress, dressed by Norman Hartnell in embroidered turquoise tulle took London society by storm. Her name became synonymous with fashionable living, she was recognised wherever she went and the gossip columns assiduously reported every step in her turbulent life, whether triumph or tragedy. A fine selection of her photographs can be found on the National Portrait Gallery's website at www.npg.org.uk/live/search/portrait.asp?LinkID=mp65128&role=sit&rNo=0 (click “next” to follow the sequence).


Her first marriage to the Irish American golf champion Charles Sweeney failed, but she was soon engaged to the Duke of Argyll, whom she had met on the Golden Arrow express from Paris to London . Again trouble loomed and it became public knowledge that the Duke had her banned from Inverary Castle and divorce proceedings, as sensational as they were acrimonious, were put in motion.


To put matters into context, these events were taking place just after the court battle which finally allowed the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover and a real life sex scandal amongst the aristocracy fitted the mood of press and public. Explicit and degrading photographs showing the duchess with a man whose face could not be seen titillated wild speculation. But many were equally outraged by the washing of so much dirty linen in public and when the duke made an unsuccessful attempt to sell the full story to The People he was forced to resign from his West End Club.


Divorce judgement was given against the duchess in a 40,000 word document which savagely attacked her morals – but she kept her nerve and her title – the opera's libretto sums it up perfectly “ I was loved before I was a Duchess, and I am a Duchess still I can face the consequences of my own actions, and the consequences of lies told about me”. She continued to live in customary high style until her money ran out, and the starting point for the opera shows her clinging to her last refuge in a hotel suite, an object of derision for a more modern generation.


Mary Plazas gives a quite superb performance, matching the diminutive stature, enormous hair-do and regal bearing of the duchess, and even using her dated upper-crust accent (pronouncing “lost” as “lorst” etc). As she leafs through her photograph album time appears to reverse and the other three singers, nominally Maid, Electrician, and Manager, transform into the other characters in the plot. Memory or nightmare? It could not be called an edifying story but faithfully illustrates the ultimate emptiness and tragedy of a once charmed life. It all works particularly well on film, with no pauses for set or costume adjustment, and the designs evoke an authentic sense of period.


Ades has composed the perfect setting of Philip Hensher's libretto. It's a very conversational piece, and whilst the singers' words may be masked by a vocal line which is often close to their upper limits, the orchestra captures the tone of the conversation and the action that surrounds it.


I'll allow myself just one last reminiscing aside to finish; the duchess did have one real life connection with opera. One of the principal witnesses for her defence in the divorce trial was the singer Nadine Crofton (by then Countess of Shrewsbury), founder of Opera at Ingestre…


Serena Fenwick


Note: The DVD includes an enlightening bonus film about the composer, with an extract from the staged version of the opera. There are no subtitles with this DVD, and inevitably there are passages (particularly those between the Duchess and the Maid) when words are unintelligible. The text is provided, but in print so small that a magnifying glass and strong light may be necessary. [Editor]