On Friday, March 10th, at 8 pm, for the first time in Turin, the Piccolo Regio Puccini will stage Powder Her Face (“Incipriale il viso”) by the English composer Thomas Adès. Premiered in 1995 at the Cheltenham Music Festival, it is one of the most frequently performed contemporary works in the theatre, as well as having had a film version.
The ironic and witty libretto by Philip Henscher is based on the life of Ethel Margaret Whigham and her stormy divorce from her second husband, Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, which caused uproar and scandal in 1963. The trial ended with the Duchess being convicted of adultery and lewd acts and unleashed the itches of the British tabloids, starting with the evidence that Campbell brought to the judge: a list of eighty-eight names, allegedly his wife’s lovers, and ‘spicy’ Polaroids. Abandoned by everyone, she lived between 1978 and 1990 in a flat at the Grosvenor House Hotel, from which she was evicted for debt. She spent the last years of her life in a nursing home, where she died in July 1993.
The play is divided into eight scenes separated by musical interludes; the first and last scenes are set in the 1990s, while the others span the 1930s and 1970s. Between continuous flashbacks, memories chase each other and intertwine in a game of disguises and double entendres in pure British style, thanks to compelling and enigmatic music.
Powder Her Face is the first opera written by Thomas Adès, a composer, pianist and conductor born in London in 1971. After studying at King’s College, Cambridge, he served as Artistic Director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and became a Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His operatic compositions, in addition to Powder Her Face (1995), include The Tempest (2004), recently staged to great acclaim at La Scala in Milan and The Exterminating Angel (2016), an adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film of the same name.
The new Teatro Regio production – staged for five performances from March 10th to 18th – is signed by director Paolo Vettori; the 23-year-old Riccardo Bisatti conducts the Teatro Regio Torino Orchestra; the stars on stage are Irina Bogdanova in the role of the duchess, Amélie Hois (playing 6 characters) and Thomas Cilluffo, who plays 5 roles: all are part of the Regio Ensemble, the community of artists in residence at the Regio. Lorenzo Mazzucchelli, who plays 5 roles, completes the cast. The sets are by Claudia Boasso, costumes by Laura Viglione and lighting by Gianni Bertoli.
Powder Her Face is performed in the original English language, with Italian subtitles; in addition, a theatre booklet with the original text and Italian translation will be available.
Says conductor Riccardo Bisatti: “Having the opportunity to tackle a score like Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face is certainly a great challenge. Technically it puts a great strain on the conductor, but what strikes me most about this work is the great naturalness with which Adès tells the story of the Duchess of Argyll through sound. The music of Powder Her Face blends perfectly with the stage action, immediately transporting the audience into a theatrical, almost cinematic dimension. For the audience, it constitutes an unusual and extremely engaging listening experience.”
“It is a work of truly extraordinary modernity,” says director Paolo Vettori, “the spectator does not take long to realise that he is basically witnessing the representation of our society, of the irresistible desire to spy through the keyhole to judge the other, of the mud machine ready to activate at the first opportunity. Eroticism and memory are mixed, leaving an extraordinary woman to emerge at the centre of the scene, a ‘libertine’ punished by society with a determination and ferocity quite different from that destined for Don Juan, the male counterpart of libertinism”.
Claudia Boasso, author of the scenes, adds: “The scene takes place in a room with worn, almost asylum-like walls, contrasting with the memories and objects of a life lived in luxury. The famous scandalous Polaroids that got her convicted become a homage to the erotic Polaroids taken by Carlo Mollino. Thanks to the collaboration of Casa Mollino, we were, therefore, able to reproduce them in large size on the back of the stage set so as to evoke that world where ‘everything is allowed’, captured by the brilliant eye of the Turinese architect”.
Not recommended for audiences under 16.