In a previous life, the complex now known as Ambika P3 housed concrete destined for the Spaghetti Junction and Channel Tunnel. Today it offers a generous space for exhibitors and performance companies, retaining something of the atmosphere of heavy industry. This may be why we’re here. Joe Hill-Gibbin’s production of Powder her Face seeks to unmask the labour behind the operatic spectacle, delivering a performance less seamless than highly wrought.
Our experience begins at the gate. The steel staircases and forklift trucks encountered en route to the auditorium are continuous with a great theatrical machine; the audience emerges backstage amidst props and scaffolding before making their way gingerly across the set to their seats.
This manner of deconstruction continues onstage, where Wagner’s famous theories are in for some particularly rough treatment. Instead of burying the orchestra, here they spill into the drama, and are even lit for effect; the conductor appears on several suspended screens, demystifying the emergence of music whilst providing cues for singers who perform in-the-round; and the subversion of the fourth wall dispels any lingering notion of the phantasmagorical. When not actually sitting amongst the audience, the singers address us directly, actively seeking eye-contact.
This is a provocative interpretation of a libretto that describes the ruin of a promiscuous Duchess. Her rebellion is directed at the code that constitutes her; expelled from society, she ceases to exist in any meaningful sense. Her fate is to be confined to a hotel room – the very epitome of transient living, and here a pile of plasterboard soon to be hauled away – where she lingers like beautiful perfume on the wane.
In Joe Hill-Gibbins’ staging, the Duchess is interchangeable with Adès’ modernist music; opposing her is the hypocritical, patriarchal Duke, who resembles the operatic institution. Her frustration at being marginalised takes the form of nostalgia for a lost world and her position within it: “I was beautiful… I was rich… what more do they need?” Likewise, opera stands accused of being a dead and excessive medium, trapped in its repertory cycle and eyeing all attempts at innovation with suspicion. On this count, every word of the charges read during her divorce proceedings could be targeted at upstart directors and composers, the institution itself presiding over proceedings.
And there are few more innovative than Thomas Adès. His music eschews easy harmony and cadence and treats us to sounds seldom heard in the opera house. This is not limited to the drunken tango that opens the piece, where the staves must have drooped on the page, nor the rich Coward-esque sequences in the second act; the pit, such as it is, is home to some irregular instruments: an accordion, a fishing reel, a swanee-whistle. It’s opera alright, but one sitting uncomfortably amongst its kin.
Not that these distractions prevent the cast from giving an enthralling performance. Roocroft delivers a crestfallen, wilfully blind Duchess – one in whom the contours of lost vitality can be readily traced. The comic and technical proficiency of her fellatio aria alone warrants the journey. Ewing is required to treble-up, and imbues all his characters – the Duke, the filibustering Judge, the cold, bureaucratical hotelier – with a dreamlike menace that provides the opera with its rhetorical spine. Also taking several roles, Eggington and Sprague have a playful and flirtatious relationship that inflects all around them.
Indeed, the appeal of this production somewhat undermines its subversive credentials. Like the Duchess of the story – her tale a tragic one – the text itself depends on a code it has rejected for signification. Like her, it operates on the fringe of a larger world. Powder her Face’s mischief is perpetrated far from the ENO’s seat in Trafalgar Square. We are left with a glorious acting-out, a ritualistic departure from the rules of the game. But what better fun than to act-out?