Site-specific productions can be a divisive issue in the arts community, and unfortunately, English National Opera’s new production of Powder Her Face at Ambika P3 will do little to silence the naysayers. The space was entirely unsuited to the Ades’ powerful opera, a problem which was compounded by set design and direction that was all too knowing.

Amanda Roocroft (The Duchess) © Richard Hubert Smith
Amanda Roocroft (The Duchess)
© Richard Hubert Smith

 The opera charts the rise and downfall of glamorous socialite Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. She became notorious following her divorce from the Duke, in which Polaroid pictures of her fellating an unknown man became public. After her divorce, she moved to a hotel, from which she was eventually evicted for failing to pay her enormous bill.

In the programme notes, Philip Hensher states that he thinks the opera is fairly morally neutral. Joe Hill-Gibbins take on this was for the direction to aim spite towards everyone. Hensher’s libretto leaves lots of space for the subtlety that so deftly captures the machinations of the upper classes, but it was in short supply here. Everything was exhaustingly nasty. If the Maid and Electrician had behaved in as openly hostile a manner towards a guest in real life, they would’ve been out of a job, no matter how awful said guest was. The Duchess’s seduction of the unknown man (in Ades’ opera, a waiter) felt more like a sexual assault, and the Duke was so horrendous to his mistress it was little wonder his wife sought solace elsewhere. That may well have been the point, but it was hammered home with no nuance whatsoever.

The set design attempted to bring a slightly more modern feel to the proceedings, which can seem a little old-hat in today’s world of endless selfies, by giving the stage the appearance of a movie set. But the live-projected Polaroids around the walls were less a witty take on the central event and more a distracting nuisance. The staging was clearly meant to look like a press gallery in the court, with the audience sat in judgement, but the staggering of the rows meant that portions of the action were often obscured. The reverberating acoustic of the venue also did little to help matters, making the libretto provided by ENO necessary to follow the action.

Alan Ewing (Hotel Manager) and Claire Eggington (Maid) © Richard Hubert Smith
Alan Ewing (Hotel Manager) and Claire Eggington (Maid)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Of all the performers, the acoustic was especially unfair to Claire Eggington, whose marvellous soprano spent large portions of time in upper registers, made histrionic by the space. The other performers suffered less vocally, and were equally impressive. Alexander Sprague and Alan Ewing were making their debuts for ENO in this production and hopefully other productions will give them the chance to shine that they truly deserve. The chamber orchestra suffered less, deftly conducted by Timothy Redmond, enjoying the nuances in the music instead of ignoring them.

The show belonged to Amanda Roocroft’s Duchess, however, and she was marvellous, somehow managing to rise above it all to elicit sympathy as she painfully failed to seduce Ewing’s Hotel Manager, mirroring neatly her successful capture of Ewing’s Duke (the role-doubling a nicely Bergian touch). Yet she, too, deserved better, as by this point not hating the Duchess and those around her wasn’t the problem. It was that it was too late to care.