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A swooning accordion gives a glimpse of tango, and half a breath later a pulse of muted trumpet sparks a flash of the Jazz Age; a bumptious bass clarinet groove followed by a fizz of cymbals drives home a punch-line. From the first beat of Thomas Adès’s tragicomic opera Powder Her Face, the listener feels transported to another world. Adès’s musical language here is memory itself—fragmented, dreamlike shards of tunes that seem familiar and strange at the same time. Like all memory, Powder Her Face is episodic, exaggerated, and somehow exotic. Its lipstick is a smidge too red, its heels a bit too high, its language rather too salty for polite company. To wit, it is every bit the musical portrait of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll.

Margaret Campbell was a real person, one of the most famous—and then infamous—British socialites of her generation. She was born Ethyl Margaret Whigham in 1912, the only child of a Scottish millionaire and industrialist. Her romantic profile is a who’s who of celebrity and high society, including the likes of David Niven (who reportedly deflowered and impregnated her at age 15), playboy Prince Aly Khan, Bob Hope, millionaire aviator Glen Kidston, and Metropolitan Museum curator Theodore Rousseau, among many others. However, it is the events surrounding her marriage to Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, that have come to define her remarkable life.

The marriage of the Duke and Duchess deteriorated quickly, hastened by his alcohol and drug abuse and her speculated infidelity. Only a few years after the 1951 wedding they were leading largely separate lives. Matters came to a head, so to speak, when the Duke employed a locksmith to break open a cabinet in the Duchess’s London pied-à-terre while she was away in New York. Inside were many Polaroid photographs, some featuring the Duchess nude except for her signature triple strand of pearls, others showing her fellating an unidentified naked man. The set of photos was the centerpiece of evidence at the couple’s divorce trial, initiated by the Duke in 1959 and running until 1963. The scandal and gossip surrounding this trial earned Margaret the nickname “The Dirty Duchess” and led to her eventual social and financial downfall.

Adès renders these scenes from her life with an astonishing range of orchestral color drawn from a mere fifteen players—including two(!) bass saxophones, three bass clarinets, and approximately 40 percussion instruments. His meticulously specific notation not only calls for virtuosity in traditional techniques, but asks the performers to control precisely the location of the bow upon the string, to manipulate the resonance of the piano by sticking Blu-Tack on the strings, and to color the sound of the brass instruments with a cornucopia of different mutes. The result is an aristocratically louche sound-world that shimmers with fine detail even as it portrays outrageous people caught in outrageous circumstances.

The fluency of Adès’s instrumental writing is matched beat-for-beat by vocal writing that is athletic in its virtuosity and fiendish in its complexity. The absurdist comedy is heightened by ridiculously steep jumps from the lowest to the highest reaches of their vocal ranges, or by a recurring polite cough punctuating a decidedly impolite act. The role of the Maid, with her endless staccato laughter and her “Fancy” aria, is a coloratura tour-de-force that makes the Queen of the Night sound like a frumpy dowager. In addition to the Duchess, portrayed by a dramatic soprano, there are only three other singers who cover a total of sixteen roles: a high soprano, a bass, and a tenor.

Given the skill with which Adès creates this musical portrait, it is easy to forget that Powder Her Face was his Opus 14. Since then Adès has enjoyed one of the most successful careers of any composer of his time. Among many international awards, in 1999 he was given the Ernst von Siemens Composer’s Prize for Arcadiana, and in 2000 his large-scale orchestral work Asyla earned him the Grawemeyer Award. In 2004 he conducted the premiere of his large-scale opera The Tempest at the Royal Opera House, bringing a new production to the Metropolitan Opera in 2012. In addition to composing for the world’s major orchestras and opera houses, Adès regularly appears as a conductor and pianist.

Powder Her Face premiered in 1995, when Adès was 24 years old, at the Cheltenham Festival and Almeida Opera, London, and here and there one can identify the hand of a composer readily familiar with the subtleties of English schoolboy humor. Among the many naughty double- and triple-entendres in the music and the libretto, one delights in Margaret’s repeated calls to room service for “meat.” Philip Hensher’s libretto is caustic, darkly comic, and decidedly unflattering in its portrayal of the Duchess. She comes across as vain, entitled, and snobbish in the extreme. On the one hand, she seems to deserve all the bad luck and derision she has coming to her. On the other, perhaps there is something to admire in her. At a time when women of her class were expected to be little more than social decor, she displayed a voraciousness for life and a devil-may-care attitude that set her apart. She is reputed to have had as many as eighty-eight lovers—the stamina and dedication alone are impressive in their own way.

Like librettist Hensher, Adès has little sympathy for the Duchess: she makes her entrance not as herself, but as a drag parody performed by the hotel electrician. One moment of quiet generosity, however, is found near the end of the opera. Adès accompanies the Duchess’s last moment in her hotel room with the sound of rhythmically turning fishing reels. It is, simultaneously, the sound of a sad, lonely woman being reeled into an undeniable fate, and the small, delicate sound of a woman’s life coming undone.

© Kyle Bartlett 2015. Kyle Bartlett is a composer living in Philadelphia.