Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face Suite

Program notes for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, January 12–13, 2018, and on tour to Palm Desert (West Coast Premiere); Santa Barbara; University of California, Davis; and Stanford University; January 15–19, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Powder Her Face is Thomas Adès’s 1995 chamber opera, based on Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose real-life 1963 divorce created a sensational sex scandal in England. Her husband accused her of infidelity, introducing a set of stolen Polaroid photos as evidence in court. Later in life, she squandered her inheritance and ended up living in a hotel suite. This is where the opera finds her, as she slips into the past, conjuring scenes set in the 1930s through ‘70s.

Both the 24-year-old Adès and his librettist, Philip Hensher, were drawn to the tabloid tale when they were commissioned by London’s Almeida Opera in the mid-1990s. “The Almeida didn’t disguise their complete bewilderment at what wewere proposing,” Hensher told The Guardian in 2008. “The director of opera said he had no idea what I meant when I said I wanted it to seem like scenes from the life of a medieval saint, only with shopping expeditions instead of miracles.” The opera was met with a mix of outrage and admiration—and is now one of the most frequently produced operas of the late 20th century.

In 2007, Adès extracted three orchestral numbers from the opera and published them as Dances from Powder Her Face. Since the original score used a 15-piece pit band, he rescored the music for full orchestra. For the 2017 Powder Her Face Suite performed on today’s program, he added five more movements, now including some vocal writing transcribed for purely instrumental forces. The expanded suite was co-commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle premiered it in May 2017.

Scene with Song comes from the opera’s opening, where a maid and an electrician fool around in the Duchess’s hotel room, laughing and mocking the old woman behind her back. Wedding March, Waltz, and Ode, call back to her earlier life, and draw on the popular dance styles of the time. Paperchase finds the Duke searching for incriminating evidence. In the libretto’s stage directions, “he goes over to the trunk and starts pulling out clothes and letters. Papers scatter everywhere, on the floor, on the bed … finally in the last drawer, he finds a camera. He rips it open and pulls out the film.” Hotel Manager’s Aria and Finale return to the end of the Duchess’s life, when she is evicted from the hotel. The Manager, originally sung by a bass, and here portrayed by the horn, is an avatar of death.