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Powder Her Face review at Nevill Holt Opera – ‘rises to brilliance’

Stephen Richardson and Daire Halpin in Powder Her Face in Nevill Holt Opera. Photo: Patrick Redmond
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For the second production of its first season in its new opera house, Nevill Holt takes on a modern classic and presents it to a level few UK companies could match.

To a mordantly witty libretto by Philip Hensher, Powder Her Face was the piece that put composer Thomas Ades on the operatic map when it premiered in 1995; and the complex appeal of this tragi-comedy based on the life of the scandalous 20th-century socialite Margaret, Duchess of Argyll continues unabated.

One fault is arguably technical – not enough of the text comes through. Surtitles would undoubtedly help.

But Antony McDonald’s stylish production charts impeccably the central character’s rise and fall from divorced former debutante and rich girl to an elderly woman thrown out of her grand hotel because she has no money left to pay the bill.

The innumerable other characters who encounter her on her up-and-down trajectory – brilliantly played here by Irish soprano Daire Halpin, British/Australian tenor Adrian Dwyer and bass-baritone Stephen Richardson – may mock and excoriate her as she crashes to earth in the most undignified manner possible, but in the end one feels for the Duchess.

Arguably somewhat soft-grained vocally for such an unashamedly hard-edged woman, soprano Mary Plazas takes on this starring role, and in terms of physicality – especially those facial expressions which this small venue allows the audience to see – she lays all the human dimensions of a flawed but proud individual before us. Her interpretation is a true tour-de-force.

But then so is the orchestral performance from the Britten Sinfonia – resident at Nevill Holt for the first time – under young conductor Ian Ryan, who together relish the parodies and the collective memories of Richard Strauss and Berg in a musical account that shows Ades’ mastery of the medium at its considerable height.

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Nevill Holt’s performance of Thomas Ades’ biting social satire rises to brilliance