14 May 2005

Powder her Face

Thomas Adès is reputed to be the bright young star of English 'classical' music - the new Benjamin Britten. So I've been listening to a couple of examples of his work - the string quartet Arcadia plus Living Toys, and his chamber opera Powder her Face. The string quartet is very mellifluous, restrained, and pastoral, but the opera uses a wide range in dynamics, volume, and pitch, plus unusual instrumentation, with touches of tango and Astor Piazzola. It's tonal, fairly logical, but demanding to listen to - though I imagine the very expressive Powder her Face would be even better for being seen. There are terrific performances on this EMI recording, with four singers playing multiple roles, and sometimes singing in the voice of one character imitating another. It's ironic in tone - reminiscent of Kurt Weill and maybe Alban Berg - and the libretto by novelist Phillip Hensher manages to be simultaneously funny and tragic. It's the story of the Duchess of Argyll, who enjoyed a life of lofty upper-class self indulgence and lubricious sexual adventure - before crashing out in penury and a scandalous court case in the 1963. This was the trial which brought to light the notorious photo of the duchess in flagrante giving a blow job to the 'headless man' - who was later rumoured to be Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Wot larks!

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