When hot new composers are discussed in learned critical circles, one name that frequently appears is Thomas Ades. Ades is a young British composer and pianist who has made quite a stir with his brilliantly orchestrated, eclectic compositions, which feature elements from popular music, but filtered through a strongly modernist prism. Ades has created an impressive resume, with major commissions for full-scale work from around the globe, and has gained such champions as Sir Simon Rattle, who will be performing Ades' orchestral work, Asyla, in his New York debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. Not bad for a young composer only just barely thirty.
Naturally, when a young talent such as this writes an opera, it is considered a major event. Unfortunately, despite the critical praise that Ades has received from some quarters, particularly from noted critic Paul Griffiths, I can't find much to celebrate in Power Her Face. Despite the witty orchestral writing, and some attractive use of tango material, to me, Powder Her Face is mostly devoid of dramatic and musical interest.
The plot of the opera was derived from the life of the Duchess of Argyll, who led a scandalous sexual life, which is depicted rather graphically in the opera, before her downfall in a public trial and ultimately her disgraceful end. Outside of the shock value, I'm not sure what exactly attracted Ades and librettist Phillip Hensher to this subject. The characters in the opera are mere ciphers, not fully realized human beings. If they were going for the alienation techniques of Brecht, they missed one key element in Brecht's aesthetic, the fact that no matter how horrible the characters in a Brecht play, there is a fully drawn human being underneath, one that you end up having sympathy with despite yourself. In Powder Her Face, this dimension of humanity is almost completely absent. The only time the Duchess is anything but a caricature is in her final aria, which is just too little, too late for me. And ultimately, there is no point to the opera besides prurience. When Brecht put his lecherous or greedy characters on stage, there was an underlying social point being made. If there is a social point to Powder Her Face is it a pretty flimsy one, and one that has been made with more wit and style by more talented creators.
Musically, Ades does show promise. The instrumentation is, as usual for the composer, quite innovative. Powder Her Face is called a "cabaret opera" a genre which Ades does get credit for inventing, though it's roots are in the Brecht/Weill collaborations of Three Penny Opera and Happy End. Ades is fascinated by the popular music of the time, and in between highly modernist phrases you hear snatches of Noel Coward-like melodies or tango tunes. The writing for voices is more problematic. Ades is not a bad setter of words. The language can always be heard, even without recourse to the libretto. That's a sure test of skill in prosody. However, except for some set pieces in popular style, and the Duchess' last aria, the work is devoid of anything memorable. Opera need not be glowing with melody. Debussy proved that 100 years ago with Pelleas. But it needs something musical to draw the ear in, and Powder Her Face just doesn't have this. All in all, it gives the impression that it would have been much better as a play with some background music. Nothing in the work sounds as if it was compelled to be sung.
Lest it be though that I am not a fan of Ades, I am. I like Asyla and some of the other instrumental pieces a lot. Though I don't think he is quite at the level that his supporters claim, I do think that, if he ignores some of the hype that has been attached to him, he will grow into a composer of real stature. But my sincere hope is that, when he tries another opera, and he should, that he examine more carefully the choice of subject, and try to go for something that really makes a statement. Shock value wears rather thin after a while.