It’s not often you get to see the UK premiere of an opera that was composed in 1911. Opera Holland Park has launched the second half of its summer season with Isabeau. Its composer, Pietro Mascagni, was, during his lifetime, enormously successful and rivalled Puccini in popularity. Now he’s often regarded as a one-hit wonder (Cavalleria Rusticana) so have OHP been brave or foolish in the relaunch of Isabeau?
The answer, I think, is a bit of both. So, let’s get the daftness of the plot out of the way first. Isabeau is very loosely based on the legend of Lady Godiva. Isabeau herself is a paragon of piety and chastity but her father, the King, manipulated by his wicked minister, Cornelius, has decided she has to marry and provide him with heirs. Isabeau’s husband will be decided by a “tournament of love” in which various knights come to woo her. Isabeau hates the idea but is compliant (this is not a feminist opera). Unfortunately, she doesn’t like any of the knights, hardly surprising given their names. The first one is Ubaldo of Edinburgh (titters from the audience) and another four follow getting ever sillier until we get to the last one. He’s called Ethel.
In the meantime, a romantic rustic, Folco, has arrived in town with his Granny, met the princess and introduced her to the joys of falconry. When Isabeau refuses Ethel and the rest and her father punishes her by making her ride naked through the town’s streets, Folco is the only one who doesn’t hide indoors with the shutters respectfully shut. Isabeau is at first outraged, then realises she loves Folco and chooses him as her husband. But the mob intervenes, first putting out his eyes then murdering him. Isabeau throws herself from the battlements to her death. With me so far?
So, what could be the problem in our Love Island culture of selling an opera about chastity and a girl’s desire to stay covered up? Director Martin Lloyd-Evans has wisely chosen to play it straight and treat it as the fairytale it is. So, we have the full medieval dress (Isabeau’s veil is a thing to behold) and a moving set (by takis) that is castle and town by turns. The super-rich score is played at full romantic tilt by the City of London Sinfonia under conductor Francesco Cilluffo – though at times they did drown out some of the singers, especially the poor herald who couldn’t be heard for the opening enthusiastic trumpet fanfare. The Opera Holland Park Chorus are quite superb.
And that goes for many of the leads, too. David Butt Philip as Folco and Anne Sophie Duprels are marvels as the unlikely lovers. Duprels commands the stage thrillingly throughout with her ravishing tone – even when upside down during her slow fall from her tower courtesy of three puppeteers (hear-no-evil, see-no-evil and speak-no-evil). Fiona Kimm was excellent as Folco’s Granny and George von Bergen a suitably slippery courtier.
What was that about puppeteers? Dressed in rather vague medieval habits (monks? peasants?) they follow the leads, sometimes watching them and sometimes becoming part of the action. They represent Folco’s falcon when the lovers first meet, at times rather disturbingly dismembering the bird into three parts. Rather better, they become Isabeau’s horse during her ride through the town (and, yes, Duprels does get her kit off, though she has a very long wig, just like Lady Godiva, to cover her modesty). This is another titter moment for the audience, though not because of Duprels’ state of undress. Mascagni’s score has descended into bathos with a clip-clopping xylophone worthy of Spamalot. The puppeteers really come into their own, though, in the opera’s final moments as they movingly orchestrate Isabeau’s slow fall towards death.
So, it has its ups and downs but overall I’d say OHP have been brave and certainly they deserve full credit for bringing another forgotten Italian opera back to life (as they did last year with Leoncavallo’s rather more successful Zaza). It’s a night that really is all about the singing. – so go for those superb voices. Though by all means, titter at a knight called Ethel.
Isabeau at Opera Holland Park until 28 July 2018. For more information and tickets please visit the website or call the Box Office on 0300 999 1000.