The year 1963 was a febrile one in British political history thanks to a series of high society scandals that showed the electorate what the ruling classes, supposedly their ‘betters’, actually got up to behind closed doors. The Profumo affair was the one that most damaged the government and is best remembered half a century later; but another major contribution to the salacious breakfast-table excitement of the average newspaper reader came from the Duchess of Argyll, whose acrimonious divorce entailed many revelations about her (in the judge’s words) ‘disgusting sexual activities’ and ‘debased sexual appetite’.
In 1995, two years after the now ex-Duchess died, her story became the basis of the opera, Powder Her Face, commissioned by Almeida Opera from composer Thomas Adès and librettist Philip Hensher, and first performed at the Cheltenham Festival. The action takes place in a hotel room across most of the Duchess’s adult life, from 1934 to 1990, with the other three characters – the hotel’s manager, electrician and maid – taking on the roles of everyone else with a part to play in the story.
Spanking does not feature heavily in the real Duchess’s story. (The erotic practice the judge was talking about is known to those with fewer hangups as oral sex.) When, in 1974, a British newspaper published a photograph of her accompanied by John Brooks, the ‘spanking colonel’ of passing notoriety, it was subsequently obliged to publish a clarification to the effect that she was only consulting him in his professional capacity as a lawyer. And indeed spanking is nowhere to be found in the published libretto, either. Yet when the opera premiered in the US in 1998, the New York Times reviewer made a point of mentioning that it contained ‘a little recreational spanking’.
The year we’re headed for is 1953, just before the interval. At this point the hotel manager is playing the Duke of Argyll, and the maid is his mistress. In the 1998 production, the latter role was taken by soprano Heather Buck:
Here she is in character, with Allen Schrott as the manager:
The substance of the scene is that the Duke learns from his mistress that the Duchess is not nearly so chaste a wife as he thought. In fact, her extra-marital amours are a subject of common gossip, and together they discover the incriminating papers and a piece of film that will later become the key evidence in the divorce case. But all this is played out in and around a bed, and the tone is one of hedonism and sexual games, latently underlining the double standard involved. The Duke enters, a little less than fresh from a social engagement, and the young lady asks him, ‘Is Daddy squiffy?’ That tells us most of what we need to know about their relationship, which leads up to this exchange:
DUKE: Now turn over.
MISTRESS (girlishly): Why?
DUKE: Are you my little girl, my naughty naughty?
MISTRESS: If you want. (Sudden lechery.) You beast.
DUKE: You love it.
MISTRESS: I love it.
The sparsity of the stage direction leaves it open for the director and actors to decide exactly what it is the ‘naughty little girl’ loves. In the 1998 production, it was:
And that’s an entirely legitimate way of realizing what’s in the libretto. But while Powder Her Face has been produced all over the world in the twenty years since it was written, I know of no other production that has included it. Though, it also has to be said, the Duke’s minor sex game is always going to be overshadowed by the much naughtier things the Duchess gets up to in the rest of the opera!