Thomas Adès: Suites from Powder Her Face

Program notes written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Three-Piece Suite revised for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Not to be reprinted without permission.

Powder Her Face is a 1995 chamber opera by Thomas Adès 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 explicit Polaroid photos as evidence in court. Later in life, she squandered her fortune 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. “The Almeida didn’t disguise their complete bewilderment at what we were 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 after its premiere—and is now one of the most frequently produced operas of the late 20th century.

Since then, Adès has become one of Britten’s most popular composers, writing two more operas: The Tempest (2003) for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and The Exterminating Angel (2016) for the Salzburg Festival, Royal Opera House, Metropolitan Opera, and Royal Danish Opera. He has also written extensively for the concert hall, including a recently acclaimed piano concerto for the Boston Symphony, and he performs internationally as a conductor and pianist.

Alongside these new works, Adès has revisited Powder Her Face over the years, first extracting three movements in 2007 as Dances from Powder Her Face. Since the original score used only a small pit band, he rescored the music for large orchestra, creating lusher sonorities and arranging some of the vocal lines for instruments. The suite was premiered by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 2007, where Adès was artistic director. Later he created two longer suites from the opera, and in 2018 lightly retouched the original and renamed it Three-piece Suite (Suite No. 1)

Three-Piece Suite (Suite No. 1) (2018)

  1. Overture
  2. Waltz
  3. Finale

The Overture and Finale are the opera’s first and last numbers, so we hear its heart-racing opening and spluttering ending on either side of a radically pared-down middle (in total, about 15 minutes of music, in contrast with the opera’s two-hour runtime). Adès’s music is so vivid it keeps its narrative coherence even in this shortened form.

In the Overture, a maid and an electrician fool around in the Duchess’s hotel room, laughing and mocking the destitute old woman behind her back. A woozy tango evokes her glamorous youth through the fog of memory, while two clarinets set the tawdry tone that defines the whole suite.

The Waltz flashes back to her 1934 wedding. In the original aria, an enviously sardonic waitress looks on and observes, “Fancy being rich. Fancy being lovely. Fancy having money to waste, and not minding it … She doesn’t look happy. She looks rich.”

The Finale returns to the hotel room in 1990, where the elderly Duchess is being evicted. The music comes apart at the seams, disintegrating in keeping with her state of denial. In what Adès originally termed the “Ghost Epilogue,” the maid and electrician continue to fool around as they strip the bed, fold the sheets, finally quit their hijinks, and turn out the lights.

Powder Her Face Suite (2017)

  1. Overture
  2. Scene with Song
  3. Wedding March
  4. Waltz
  5. Ode
  6. Paperchase
  7. Hotel Manger’s Aria “It is too late”
  8. Finale

For the 2017 Powder Her Face Suite, Adès added five more movements, 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.

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.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.