Sex and the opera: “Powder her face” tours Ireland in first Irish National Opera production.

Sex and the opera: “Powder her face” tours Ireland in first Irish National Opera production.

Let’s be honest: “contemporary opera” can sound a bit intimidating. But if you want to give it a try, “Powder her face” is a good place to start. A 1995 opera by Thomas Adès on libretto by Philip Hensher, it has collected critical consensus throughout the years, reaching the reassuring status of “a modern classic” (The Times).

This is a co-production of Irish National Opera and Northern Ireland Opera that has appeared in Belfast last year with extremely positive reviews, and it will now tour Ireland from the 24th of February until the 9th of March. “The audience will find that it is remarkably accessible, easy to understand and very entertaining. The music is a kaleidoscope of different styles and influences […] from the nostalgia of the 1930s to the edginess of more contemporary times” says Fergus Sheil, artistic director of INO.

Lost in opera’s divine music, one doesn’t really think about it, but operatic plots have always been fuelled by sex in all its shades, ranging from romance (La Bohème), to lust (Carmen), to violence (Rigoletto). But sex has always remained behind the scenes and only hinted at in allusive lyrics.

But what if the libretto becomes explicit and sex takes centre stage in the plot? That’s what happens in “Powder her face”. Leaving out feminism for a moment, a wife who collects more than 88 (paid for) lovers seems to be an extreme and unlikely subject for an opera. Except that it’s all true. The plot is based on the true story of the Duchess of Argyll and her scandalous divorce case in 1963. As the great Italian writer Luigi Pirandello said, reality always surpasses imagination.

Still, doesn’t the character of the Duchess risk looking like a caricature, therefore hindering any kind of identification from the audience?

Soprano Daire Halpin (who plays the maid and other roles in the opera) doesn’t think so: in depicting the downfall of the billionaire “dirty Duchess”, as she was called, “Mary [Plazas] gives such a sensitive portrayal of that process of ageing whereby no matter who you were, ageing is so universal and you can become so invisible. […] That’s incredibly moving and very real for many of us. […] And it happens to her in such a stark way, because she loses all her money, she loses all her influence, she loses her home […] she loses everything. I think it’s the real human heart of the story”. We also see that sex in the story “is used for control and power and manipulation. […] It becomes obvious later on that [the Duchess] is using sex as an emotional crutch to fill emotional voids in her life.”

This opera is “fast paced, witty, entertaining, moving and ultimately heartbreaking” says Fergus Sheil. It definitely looks like a must see to us.

For dates, venues and to book your tickets to “Powder her face”: http://www.irishnationalopera.ie/whats-on/current-upcoming-productions/powder-her-face.

* Picture: Daire Halpin and Stephen Richardson in “Powder her face”. Photo by Pat Redmond.