Amanda Roocroft, Claire Eggington and Alexander Sprague
It’s rare that a theatre director makes his ENO debut with a smaller budget than he had for his last play. But Young Vic superstar Joe Hill-Gibbins does a lot with relatively little in his production of Thomas Adès’s ‘Powder Her Face’, staged by ENO in Ambika P3, an atmospheric concrete space under the University of Westminster. Adès’s score is held to be the star of this eerie chamber opera, and its jazzy roilings and ominous, bluesy brass are indeed stunningly unsettling, marshalled to perfection by conductor Timothy Redmond.
Philip Hensher’s libretto is based upon the life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, an old-fashioned society darling whose 1963 divorce turned nasty after Polaroid evidence of her promiscuity was presented to the court, most notably a photo of her gobbing off a mystery gentleman. Notoriously, the opera features this act: Margaret hums tunefully while administering oral relief to a bored bellboy.
No smirking, now: ‘Powder Her Face’ isn’t titillation, but eight vignette-like scenes offering an abstract portrait of a desperately lonely woman, isolated from society, drifting though her memories in the hotel room she lived in during her later years. Following on from last year’s ‘Edward II’ and 2012’s ‘The Changeling’, Hill-Gibbins has great form with portraits of isolated aristocrats. Often he’s given to outrageous camp, but here his direction is serious and pared down, opting to play up the pain in the libretto rather than go nuts with Hensher’s considerable deadpan humour.
There is almost no set, just a bare floor, with objects from Margaret’s life – a table, a bath, a food trolley – dragged on for specific scenes then left there, a sad, ghostly clutter. Soprano Amanda Roocroft is fragile, and vitally earnest as Margaret; Clare Eggington offers playful charm as her hotel maid; bass Alan Ewing is terrifying as the judge who pruriently condemns her.
The staging is so minimal that the acting often feels like a strange, alluring installation, placed there to compliment the music. But it is ineffably haunting, and certainly whets the appetite for what Hill-Gibbins might do if unleashed on the doomed aristocrats of the classical canon.