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Reviews

<em>Isabeau</em> at Investec Opera Holland Park
15 Jul 2018

Mascagni's Isabeau rides again at Investec Opera Holland Park

There seemed to me to be something distinctly Chaucerian about Martin Lloyd-Evans’ new production of Mascagni’s Isabeau (the first UK production of the opera) for Investec Opera Holland Park.

Isabeau at Investec Opera Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Isabeau, with Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role (centre)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

It’s not just the medieval milieu recreated by takis’ set - high majestic towers, low townhouses with windows that will be sealed tight when Isabeau rides through the streets, twisting stairwells and alleyways - or the heraldic colour and chivalry.

It’s the way that Lloyd-Evans seems to mimic the blending and subversion of genres that Chaucer achieved in narratives such as the Franklin’s Tale in which the quasi-magical romance of the Breton lay form, with its characteristic courtesies and courtly love, is countered with real, painful human passions which defy classification and custom. (Readers seeking a resumé of genesis and plot might like to turn to my interview last month with David Butt Philip , who sings the role of Folco in this production.)

Some of takis’ symbolism has a pre-Raphaelite preciousness about it - the silver falcon sculpted by Benedict Romain and manoeuvred by three ‘angels’ which symbolises the transcending freedom bestowed by Folco’s love; the juxtaposition of glossy crimson, emerald and purple robes with Isabeau’s Christ-like white purity; floral and decorative iconography; Isabeau’s Rapunzel-like red-tresses (a languorous Elizabeth Siddal as painted by Edward Burne-Jones came to mind) - but that’s not unreasonable given the archaisms and allusiveness of Luigi Illica’s libretto.

Sometimes the manoeuvring of the set by the Opera Holland Park Chorus feels rather cumbersome and effortful, as they rotate cottages, slide walls and spiral staircases. And, at the start of the opening night performance, when the round exterior of the drum tower refused to budge and King Raimondo remained concealed within it was unfortunately reminiscent of the malfunctioning of the wobbly sets of 1970s sitcoms. It was also regrettable that when the knights arrive seeking to win the princess’s hand - Ubaldo of Edinburgh, Arundel of Westerne, Ethelberto di Argile, Randolfo of Dublin - Illica’s faux archaic nomenclature raised a chuckle. Despite their resplendent armour and pompous righteousness, Isabeau was clearly not impressed by her Arthurian suitors’ deeds of high honour and derring-do.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Isabeau with the Angels and members of the Opera Holland Park Chorus.jpg Anne Sophie Duprels as Isabeau with the Angels and members of the Opera Holland Park Chorus. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

But, the wide stage area is engagingly filled and populated, and there are some effective moments of dramatic pageantry, such as the lauded arrival of the Outlaw Knight, the King’s nephew Ethel, who lifts his shield aloft to claim his bride. And, the naked horse-ride itself is thoughtful staged and paced, with the musical and dramatic tempo increasing breathtakingly when Folco brazenly admires the humiliated Isabeau, and climaxing in the desperate assertion with is her sole utterance in the second Act, ‘Folco!’ Most especially, the duet which dominates the final Act is tremendously powerful, as both the promise of love and the threat of death escalate to fever pitch.

Folco David Philip Butt.jpg David Philip Butt (Folco). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

When I asked David Butt Philip if Isabeau’s neglect was due to the difficulty of casting two singers who could surmount the demands - sustained high tessitura, stamina - of the two lead roles, the tenor modestly demurred that the while the opera was challenging, Mascagni’s dramatic design helps the singers to pace themselves. Nevertheless, the roles of both Folco and Isabeau sounded pretty taxing to me, and Investec Opera Holland Park were lucky to have two singers who tackled them so boldly and with such persuasive and stirring accomplishment.

Butt Philip conveyed every ounce of Folco’s youthful optimism, passion and directness; the merry woodsman had the openness and spontaneity of a Papageno in Act 1, while Folco’s consuming joy as he showered the naked rider with flowers and sang ecstatic paeans to her beauty, with match his floral tribute, was palpable. When, in the Act 3 duet, he accused Isabeau of hiding her true passion behind a false guilt, Butt Philip’s vocal and physical acting was superb. Throughout he displayed impressive muscular power to match the strength of Folco’s honest feeling.

ASD as Isab .jpgAnne Sophie Duprels (Isabeau). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Anne Sophie Duprels is fast becoming not so much a princess but a queen of Investec Opera Holland Park, after her acclaimed performances in Mascagni’s in 2016 Iris and last year’s production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà . Duprels’ Isabeau was elevated and chaste - she seemed to share Mélisande’s disconcerting blend of ethereal, fairy-tale other-worldliness and tangible physical sensuality. Vocally, she switched from heavenly to highly charged - and from lyricism and declamation - in an instant. Her voice shone lustrously but there were also rapturous pianissimos - one sustained stratospheric whisper towards the close seemed to suspend time - and there was variety of both colour and dynamics. A truly regal performance.

George von Bergen as Cornelius and Mikhail Svetlov as King Raimondo .jpg Photo credit:George von Bergen (Cornelius) and (Mikhail Svetlov) as King Raimondo Robert Workman.

The minor characters do not really have sufficiently interesting dramatic or musical involvement to make them anything more than two-dimensional, but all of the cast worked hard to create impact and presence. I felt that Lloyd-Evans didn’t make enough of the King’s Councillor Cornelius’ Machiavellian dastardliness, but George von Bergen brought some vocal darkness to the role. Mikhail Svetlov, who impressed as Il Cieco in Iris, rather lacked grading and shading as King Raimondo but was appropriately stentorian as the cruel patriarch.

Fiona Kimm was terrific as Giglietta, her plump, rich tone and urgent projection conveying real love for her grandson and heart-warming courage in pleading for his life. Isabeau’s maids were performed by Nadine Benjamin (Ermyntrude) and Joanne Marie Skillett (Ermyngarde), and their voices blended beautifully with the harp as they showed consoling love for their humiliated mistress in Act 3. The stage was busily populated with extras such as six heralding on-stage trumpeters (who rather overpowered the ‘real’ herald - Thomas Humphreys’ L’araldo maggiore) and the aforementioned three angels who by the close seemed to have become a trio of Grim Reapers.

Fiona Kimm as Giglietta.jpg Fiona Kimm as Giglietta. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Conductor Francesco Cilluffo relished every rhythmic and harmonic intricacy and surprise, and summoned passionate playing from the City of London Sinfonia, showing the same sort of authority that enabled him to guide Wexford Festival Opera’s 2015 Guglielmo Ratcliff with such accomplishment and drive. The Intermezzo, a ‘Hymn to the Sun’, before the fateful ride gleamed with ardour.

When Isabeau was premiered, under Mascagni’s baton and with Maria Farneti and Antonio Saludas in the leading roles, in June 1911 at the Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires, each Act received an ovation, and after productions (again with the composer at the helm) at La Scala and La Fenice the following year the opera remained in the repertoire, in Italy at least, as a star vehicle for tenors such as Bernardo De Muro and Giulio Crimi, with Maria Farneti, Gilda Dalla Rizza and Rosetta Pampanini, among others achieving success in the title role. It subsequently slipped under the radar, and we owe Investec Opera Holland Park gratitude and admiration for having given us a chance to experience an opera which may be dramaturgically unsatisfying, but which has plenty of vocal charisma and dramatic panache to compensate.

William Ashbrook may have, along with others who have viewed the opera as second-rate verismo cliché, condemned the opera as ‘trite bombast’, but on this occasion there was plenty of musical finesse and mesmeric fire.

Performances of Isabeau continue on 18, 20, 26 and 28 July.

Claire Seymour

Mascagni: Isabeau (UK premiere)

Isabeau - Anne Sophie Dupreis, Folco - David Butt Philip, King Raimondo - Mikhail Svetlov, Cornelius - George von Bergen, Ermyntrude - Nadine Benjamin, Ermyngarde - Joanne Marie Skillett, Giglietta - Fiona Kimm, Il cavalier Faidit - Oliver Brignall, L’araldo maggiore - Thomas Humphreys; Director - Matrtin Lloyd-Evans, Conductor - Francesco Cillufo, Designer -takis, Lighting Designer - Robbie Butler, City of London Sinfonia, Chorus of Opera Holland Park.

Investec Opera Holland Park, London; Saturday 14th July 2018.

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