Based on the notorious sex life of Margaret Duchess of Argyll, Thomas Adès' 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face helped launch him into the forefront of British composers. A splendid revival has now launched Ireland's new Irish National Opera with a bang. Opening with a tango danced by two of the four-singer cast wearing black, bunny-eared bondage masks, and ending with the tango's reprise in the same garb, there was nary a misstep in this co-production with Northern Ireland Opera that had its première in Belfast in January and is now performed at the O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin.

Mary Plazas (The Duchess) and Adrian Dwyer (Waiter) © Pat Redmond
Mary Plazas (The Duchess) and Adrian Dwyer (Waiter)
© Pat Redmond

From the singing, to stage design with easy transport around the country in mind, to the 15-member pit orchestra seeded with some of Ireland's best musicians, the production is directed and designed by Antony McDonald, directed for this Irish revival by Danielle Urbas, and was exhilarating from start to finish.

It has been almost 25 years since Adès and librettist Philip Hensher wrote their opera based on the life of the heiress and socialite whose marriage to a Duke ended in scandal. Her 1963 divorce case included Polaroid photographs of her performing fellatio on men whose heads cannot be seen – the "headless men" of British tabloid fame. With the energy and cheekiness of youth, Adès and Hensher undertook to stage the unstageable and did not flinch when it came to the most infamous aspect of the divorce trial.

Soprano Mary Plazas handled the role magnificently, her aria giving way to humming and then to a coughing fit as she sank to her knees to simulate the deed with tenor Adrian Dwyer, who played numerous parts but, in this scene, was a room-service waiter who haddelivered a tray of "beef sandwiches". There was plenty more in this vein, which prompted the INO to label the show as "suitable for over-16s only". A fetishist romp between the Duke, sung by the superb British bass Stephen Richardson, and a maid/call-girl portrayed by the clear-voiced Irish soprano Daire Halpin, ends with her dressing him in an enormous nappy and sticking a gigantic bottle in his mouth. Richardson's star turn comes as a divorce-court judge straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, who says he's seen a lot in his life but nothing like the Duchess, whom he denounces as "a Don Juan among women".

Stephen Richardson (The Duke) and Daire Halpin (Mistress) © Pat Redmond
Stephen Richardson (The Duke) and Daire Halpin (Mistress)
© Pat Redmond

With the stage action pushing the boundaries, Adès was inspired to go all out for the score. Snippets of Lulu, Der Rosenkavalier and The Rake's Progress, plus a Cole Porter-esque showtune, bubble up from the gnarly mass of sound. Although Adès' next opera, The Tempest, was not produced until 2004, many of the memorable passages from that work can be heard in embryonic form here.

The INO orchestra, under the baton of Timothy Redmond, was top-notch. Among the standouts were Alex Petcu on a wide array of percussion, Dermot Dunne providing the lounge-lizard strains of the accordion, and Conor Sheil pumping out room-filling sound on the bass saxophone to underscore the kinkiness of it all.

But top accolades go to Plazas, whose Duchess was at once despicable for her sense of entitlement and her racist and anti-Semitic views, and heartbreakingly vulnerable with her realisation at the end that "the only people who were ever good to me were paid for it".

Cocktail group © Pat Redmond
Cocktail group
© Pat Redmond

Destitute in old age, she is evicted from her luxury hotel suite for non-payment, and the manager – played again by Richardson, her onetime Duke – spurns her offer of sex so she can stay a short time longer. The Duchess is a hard sell, but Plazas' Margaret almost (but not quite) brought a tear to the eye.

At 140 minutes long, this first offering from INO, the country's first national opera company since Opera Ireland ceased operating eight years go, whetted the appetite for more. That will happen in April when the INO presents its first major production, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro... and more fun in the bedchamber.