Friday, 27 July 2018

Richly Romantic: Mascagni rarity, Isabeau, brought to life at Opera Holland Park

Mascagni: Isabeau - David Butt Philip, Fiona Kim, George von Bergen, Anne-Sophe Duprels, Mikhail Svetlov, Joanna Marie Skillett, Nadine Benjamin - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Mascagni: Isabeau - David Butt Philip, Fiona Kim, George von Bergen, Anne-Sophie Duprels, Mikhail Svetlov, Joanna Marie Skillett, Nadine Benjamin - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Mascagni Isabeau; Anne Sophie Duprels, David Butt Philip, Mikhail Svetlov, George von Bergen, dir: Martin Lloyd Evans, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Francesco Cilluffo Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A real rarity, Mascagni's gorgeous score brought to life with love

Mascagni: Isabeau - Anne-Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Isabeau and the falcon
Anne-Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Pietro Mascagni was concerned not to repeat himself, so never again would he return to the world of Verismo opera which is encapsulated in Cavalleria Rusticana. Many of his operas were popular during his lifetime, but most have languished since. His 10th opera, Isabeau was premiered in Buenos Aires in 1911, with the composer conducting. It uses elements of the Lady Godiva legend, in a libretto by Luigi Illica who wrote the libretto for Mascagni's 1898 opera Iris.

Having given us Mascagni's Iris in 2016 [see my review], Opera Holland Park returned to rare Mascagni with the UK premiere of Isabeau. We caught the 4th performance on Thursday 26 July 2018. Anne-Sophie Duprels was Isabeau, with David Butt Philip as Folco, George von Bergen as Cornelius and Mikhail Svetlov as the King. Martin Lloyd-Evans directed, with designs by takis and lighting by Robbie Butler, Francesco Cilluffo conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Mascagni: Isabeau - David Butt Philip - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
 David Butt Philip - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
As with their collaboration on Iris, Mascagni and Illica seem to have been interested in elements of Symbolism, here an emphasis on sight and seeing, though this is allied to a score where Mascagni's rich and complex orchestration tempt one into using the term Wagnerian, perhaps Richard Strauss would be a better analogy. The plot is simple (perhaps simplistic). The Princess Isabeau (Anne-Sophie Duprels) insists that she marries for love, so refuses all of the princes presented to her in a 'joust of love', including Il cavalier Faidit(Oliver Brignell), who is, in fact, her father's nephew in disguise. Her father the King (Mikhail Svetlov), incited by his councillor Cornelius (George von Bergen), punishes her by making her ride naked through the streets. Folco, a falconer (David Butt Philip), is a naive, holy-fool like figure, brought to court to find a place by his grandmother (Fiona Kimm). Having met the princess and been attracted to her, he sees no shame in looking on her nakedness and covering her with flowers. He is punished and jailed where she visits him and the two have a rapturous love duet, but it does not end well.


Mascagni: Isabeau - George von Bergen, Mikhail Svetlov - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
George von Bergen, Mikhail Svetlov - (Photo Robert Workman)
It is not a strong story, and Illica's libretto fails to develop the characters of the King and Cornelius, they rather languish after Act One, as the opera focuses almost entirely on Isabeau and Folco. In fact, the other large role is for the people, and the chorus gets a real part in the drama, not just commenting. They take on board the strictures of the naked ride, and it is they who attack Folco at the end. Martin Lloyd Evan's production took the piece entirely seriously and gave us stylised medieval in takis glorious designs with a striking set which combined a rotunda (stage left) which opened to reveal the court scenes, and movable towers (stage right) which made the city.

But it was not slavishly cod-ancient, the rotunda was apparently made of rusting metal and three Angels (Karl Fagerlund Brekke, Sara Hamilton, Ben Thompson) acted as silent manipulators of the action (the idea was taken from a comment by one of the Princess's ladies in waiting, who talks of angels protecting her during her naked ride). These angels not only guided Isabeau but manipulated the steel falcon controlled by Folco, in a really magical scene, as well as providing the horse for the ride. Both falcon and horse created by sculptor Benedict Romain.

Mascagni: Isabeau - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Mascagni: Isabeau - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Isabeau is not a forgotten masterpiece, but there was much to enjoy. The plot, frankly, was rather limited and the real problem was not the lack of plausibility but the lack of dramatic development. It felt like a series of tableaux. Yet they were gorgeous tableaux. The piece would benefit from a strong modern recording so that we could listen to the wonderful complexity and lyricism of Mascagni's orchestral writing. His vocal lines were mainly declamatory, you do not come out singing any of the tunes, but in the Act Three duet for Folco and Isabeau, and in their final scene, we finally moved into an area of strong music drama, though this was a little too late to save the opera.

Anne-Sophie Duprels brought drama and commitment to her portrayal of Isabeau, giving the character the sort of concentrated intensity which made her defiance of her father believable. This powerful presence provided a real core to the drama and still flowered lyrically in the glorious Act Three duet. David Butt Philip was a towering presence as Folco, seemingly unphased by the role's stamina requirements and giving us plenty of rich, Italianate tone. He brought out the character's naivety and otherworldliness, yet partnered Duprels in as fine a late Romantic fashion as one could wish for. With such a pair of principals, you almost believed the drama and certainly, they made the closing scenes pretty powerful.

Mascagni: Isabeau - Fiona Kimm - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Fiona Kimm - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
George von Bergen did his best with Cornelius, the character is under-written but von Bergen made him an important part of the action, insinuating himself into the drama. Mikhail Svetlov was a powerful presence as the King. Fiona Kimm impressed as Giglietta, the small but important role as Folco's grandmother which she sang with immense sympathy. The other smaller roles were cast from strength with Nadine Benjamin as Ermyntrude, Joanna Marie Skillett as Ermyngarde, Princess's ladies in waiting, and Thomas Humphreys as the herald.

The chorus was here on terrific form, taking all the opportunities which Mascagni gave them and bringing the people of the town to vivid and tumultuous life, moving from celebration to real viciousness at the end.

Francesco Cilluffo conducted the score with real love, drawing out the lyricism in Mascagni's complex score which includes triple woodwind, four horns and lots of percussions, not to mention the six on-stage trumpets. In purely orchestral terms, this score was probably the furthest that Mascagni went from his Verismo roots towards the worlds of Debussy, Wagner and Richard Strauss. There were moments when Cillufo and the orchestra's love of the music got the better of them and the balance was less than ideal, but it was a fault in the right direction, giving us a richly textured account of this gorgeous orchestral score.

Mascagni's Isabeau will never become a repertory work and this first UK staging is hardly likely to be followed by another one soon. For all its dramatic faults, the work is full of musical interest but needs a team who can respond to its particular requirements, and at Opera Holland Park, Martin Lloyd-Evans, Francesco Cilluffo, Anne-Sophie Duprels, David Butt Philip and the cast all responded with real love.

Mascagni: Isabeau - Anne-Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
The Princess riding on her horse
Mascagni: Isabeau - Anne-Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
What was really impressive was the way that Opera Holland Park has taken its audience with them on the journey through late Romantic rarities from Italy. Rarities can often strike interest, but this does not necessarily turn into a real audience. Yet, before the performances, there was a real buzz of excitement, and even at the fourth performance, the house was impressively full.  And there are more rarities to come, next year Opera Holland Park returns to Cilea's L'Arlesiana and gives us Wolf-Ferrari's Il segreto di Susanna, and then in 2020 a real rarity, Montemezzi's La nave.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A disturbing journey: Schubert's Winterreise from Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Byron's Grand Tour: Alison Pitt & Gavin Roberts at the St Marylebone Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • It’s Opera Giacomo, but not as we know it - Turandot at Torre del Lago (★★★) - Opera review
  • A study in dementia: a radical new version of Verdi's Nabucco from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★) - Opera review
  • Lithe and musically engaging: Verdi's I Lombardi from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Premiere of a rarity: Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida from Opera Rara and the Royal Opera - (★★★★★) Opera review
  • An impressive achievement: Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park - (★★★★½) Opera review
  • Alissa Firsova: Fantasy  (★★★★) - CD review
  • The cabaret tradition: Melinda Hughes, Jeremy Limb & friends in Weimar and Back (★★★½)  - CD review
  • A new, yet familiar piece: Benjamin Zander on his interpretation of Beethoven's Choral Symphony  - interview
  • More than just Vox patris coelestis: a new William Mundy disc from Edinburgh (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month