ENO’s annual spring ‘away-days’ from the Coliseum are to be treasured. Henze in the Young Vic, Rihm at the Hampstead Theatre and Aa at the Barbican. It’s been an ABC of how opera has met the challenge of the modern world and a valuable reminder that serious music theatre is a living and not a museum art. But what could be more challenging than a vast concrete subterranean space under the University of Westminster opposite Madame Tussauds?
What is now the Ambika P3 performance space – 14,000 square feet of it – was once a place where they ‘tested’ concrete. Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction and the Channel Tunnel began their life here, so to speak. But towering grey bare walls, a concrete floor and an echoing acoustic are all a far cry from the Edwardian luxury of the Coliseum or indeed the other theatres that ENO has visited for its past spring breaks.
In the event, the Ambika P3 fitted Thomas Ades’s Powder Her Face as perfectly as a pair of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s glace kid gloves graced her hands. An opera that looks back at a life of riot and scandal on a day of reckoning in which the penniless Duchess will be asked to leave the Park Lane Hotel where she has lived since her divorce from the Duke is all about contingency. And when the cast, dressed as stage crew, literally assembles the Duchess’s baby pink hotel suite, there was a real sense of a life being played out on a margin, sexually and socially.
Better yet, the two ‘rubberneckers’ who are in court for the celebrated divorce case are there in the audience, thus turning us all into voyeurs as the celebrated Polaroid with the ‘Dirty’ Duchess, as she came to be known, and the ‘headless man’ is produced in evidence. And, make of it what you will, but Philip Hensher the librettist for Powder Her Face, told the audience for the pre-performance talk that it was the idea of operatic oral sex that won over Ades to the subject.
And the incongruity of the tale of a mid-twentieth century upper-class scandal told in a brutalist concrete cavern does something else. In an opera house you are somehow encouraged to sympathise with the Duchess - here’s another suffering diva who will have to die, a first cousin of Norma, Tosca and Lulu. That’s what we expect. But here at Ambika P3, a temple to the technology that was going to rescue us all in the white heat of the 1960s, we see the Duchess as an anachronism while also sympathizing with a fallen woman. This is a story about privilege and class and money with a wonderfully knowing libretto dressed in a piquant score. And in a way it was technology that undid Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, when she was identified in the now-notorious Polaroid after an expert had recognised the Argyll pearls around her neck.