Saturday 10 June 2006

Powder her Face

On Thursday we went to see the LSO doing Thomas Adès's opera Powder her Face, not the full LSO of course but a large chamber ensemble, some 15 people, conducted by the composer. Mary Plazas was the Duchess with Daniel Norman (tenor), Valdine Anderson (soprano) and Stephen Richardson (baritone).

The work is still astonishing, over 10 years since its first performance, partly because of the elan and confidence with which Adès handles the orchestra, deftly producing an entrancing array of sounds. Under the composer's direction the LSO ensemble realised his wished brilliantly.

The other area where the opera impresses is in its libretto and in its construction. Philip Hensher's libretto is a model of compression and manages to convey everything necessary using as few words as possible. He has also enabled Adès to indulge in his love of popular melodies and found objects.

Where I remain less impressed is in the quality of the vocal writing. There is not doubt that it is expressive; Mary Plazas sang the Duchess with wonderful dignity, hauteur and touching frailty, even managing the notorious oral sex scene with aplomb. But I am not sure that the actual melodic lines she is given are as memorable as the orchestral web which surrounds them.

Valdine Anderson was completely up to the astonishing feats of coloratura which she was required to perform. The characters which she plays seemed to spend much of their time laughing above the stave and Anderson conveyed a sense of joy and amusement, never strain or anxiety.

Daniel Norman was elegantly ironic in his role as lounge lizard but managed easily to switch to being an electrician or a waiter being propositioned for sex. Stephen Richardson used his dark voice very aptly in his triple role as the Duke, the Judge and the Hotel Manager.

I was not entirely happy about the presentation of the opera. The singers were placed towards the rear of the stage at the side of the orchestra, presumably so that they had a good view of the conductor. This meant that to see Mary Plazas (we were sitting at the front on the right), we had to constantly move our heads to dodge the conductor and his rostrum, not ideal at all. The other point was that the singers were discreetly amplified. I've never heard the opera live before, so am not sure if this is standard procedure. It did seem that the 15 players of the LSO ensemble produced a remarkable volume of noise at times. The amplification, whilst not too disturbing, did reduce some of the directionality of the voices. I would have far preferred it if the orchestra had been encouraged to keep it down and the singers placed at the very front, so that they did not have to use amplfication.

But those complaints aside, this was a most enjoyable evening and Mary Plazas succeeded in making us not a little bit sad for the monster of a Duchess as she left the hotel at the very end.

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