Dances from Powder Her Face
Publisher: Faber Music
KSO played: 2010
Philip Larkin famously observed that “Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (Which was rather too late for me).” The Beatles and Lady Chatterly’s Lover were his compass points, but another could easily have been the scandalous divorce of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. The daughter of a Scottish millionaire raised in New York, Margaret was named debutante of the year in 1930 and became a well-known socialite. Just how well she had made herself known was demonstrated when the Duke of Argyll filed for divorce.
The evidence presented for his wife’s infidelity prompted the Minister for Defence to offer his resignation; the identity of the “Headless Man” photographed in a compromising position with the Duchess remains a subject of speculation to this day. The Profumo affair the same year provided further evidence that the age of deference was coming to an end. The Duchess continued her extravagant lifestyle regardless. Eventually she was forced to sell her home and live in a hotel suite. She ended her days penniless in a nursing home, a far cry from her glamorous youth.
Sex, Scandal and Aristocracy are of course three staple ingredients of opera. Thomas Adès duly stepped up to the challenge in 1997 and made his name with the ensuing succès de scandale. Signing up with Britten’s publisher, curating the Aldeburgh festival and composing to commissions from Covent Garden and the Berlin Philharmonic among others have since cemented his position at the heart of the establishment, but Powder Her Face remains a highlight of his career so far.
The opera is not quite biographical: the duchess presented in it is a fictionalised version of the real Margaret, which allows for a certain latitude with regard to fact; dates and the order of events are freely rearranged. The duchess is presented as at once comic and tragic, a woman of little self-awareness who is brought down by her own foolishness, but also by a puritanical and judgemental society, and the passing of a culture that holds its upper classes in unthinking deference. The action takes place at various points in the duchess’s life. At the beginning and end of the play we see her in her decline, about to leave the hotel suite she could no longer afford in 1990. In between come scenes from her youthful prime as a débutante and socialite, and the furore surrounding her divorce.
In its original form the music is written for a small ensemble reminiscent of a pit band or a dance orchestra. The present suite expands the original forces into a full symphony orchestra, and presents a précis of the Duchess’s world. The acid-drenched tango of the Overture evokes the hotel staff mocking the Duchess and her decadent past. There follows a waltz with an hallucinogenic quality, suggestive of a world lost to dreams, before the finale snuffs out the lights.
Note © by Peter Nagle
Note © by Peter Nagle