Opera features obsession Hollywood had to leave out

Buxton International Festival’s new opera about the life of the fifth Duchess of Devonshire will tackle an obsession which the Hollywood film version of her life barely touched.

Keira Knightley, who starred in 2008’s The Duchess, had hoped the film would be able to include the drama of Georgiana Cavendish’s gambling addiction and the massive debts she ran up at the gaming tables of Georgian high society which she scandalised and fascinated in equal measure.

But unsurprisingly with a life as complex as Georgiana’s, packing every detail into one film proved impossible, the Oscar-nominated actress said in an interview after being shown her character’s handwritten gambling records during a visit to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

“I saw her gambling books, which was something we tried so hard to get into the film but never could quite make completely work,” Keira told the indie London website at the time.“She was a huge gambling addict, so it was amazing to see her debt books, in her own hand.”

Georgiana gambled so much that when she died, her husband was surprised that her debts were only £3.7 million at today’s value, asking: “Is that all?”

But the opera, which will debut at the Buxton Festival in July, will feature her addiction as an important part of explaining the risks she took in life.

“Her life was ruined by an addiction to the game of Faro,” said Michael Williams, who wrote the lyrics to Georgiana. “It was the cause of great unhappiness and she lost a lot of her friends. She was known as a lame duck because she didn’t pay her debts.”

Faro is one of the oldest card games in the world, with the nickname of “twisting the tiger’s tail,” and the bank of choice for British royalty, Coutts, was nearly destroyed by underwriting Georgiana’s debts.

“Massive fortunes were lost on the turn of a card,” said Michael, whose libretto recreates the manic excesses of the era’s high society. “Whole villages would be bet. They were just playthings.”

Book for Georgiana at the Buxton Opera House: July 7, 12, 15 and 20.