Opera Profile: Thomas Adès’ Sexually-Charged “Powder Her Face”

By Gillian Reinhard
(Credit: Lorenzo Gaudenzi)

“Powder Her Face” by Thomas Adès premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival on July 1st, 1995.

While the opera was well-received by music critics, “Powder Her Face” became notorious for its sexually explicit content. With a libretto by Philip Hensher, the opera tells the story of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, a famous British socialite of the twentieth century.

The opera tracks the Duchess’ rise and fall—from a young debutante in the 1930s to a scandalous sex icon of the 1960s, notable for her several marriages, divorces, affairs, and overall extravagance. In the original recording of the opera, Jill Gomez performed the title role throughout her life.

Adès’ unconventionally sexual opera was rooted in the modern tradition of Britten, Weill, and Berg. The latter particularly inspired the composer, and “Powder Her Face” has remnants of Berg’s “Lulu” in the score.

Short Plot Summary

The opera charts the life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose husband memorably divorced her on 88 counts of adultery.

The piece begins in 1990, with the Duchess reminiscing on her life. Adès details the ill-fated marriage of the Duchess and her Duke in the 1930s, which falls apart by the 1950s when Margaret seduces a waiter, who ultimately reveals her infidelity.

Margaret’s husband has several dalliances of his own, but his wife has quickly ascended to the height of British high society. The opera concludes with a magazine interview in 1970, and the Duchess’ bankruptcy in 1990.

Famous Musical Numbers

Rather than acts, “Powder Her Face” is a chamber opera divided into eight scenes and an epilogue. Notable pieces include the overture, the scene three aria of the Duke and Duchess’ wedding, and the scene four aria, when the Duchess seduces a waiter.

Watch and Listen

Scene 4, “Room Service”

“Powder Her Face,” Waltz


Opera Wiki