Isabeau review – Anne Sophie Duprels soars as Mascagni's neglected heroine

Opera Holland Park, London
Exciting singing and Francesco Cilluffo’s terrific conducting power this rarely seen variation on the Lady Godiva legend

When a work languishes in obscurity for as long as Pietro Mascagni’s 1911 opera Isabeau has done, there is usually a good reason. In the case of Isabeau, several such explanations offer themselves, for Isabeau is emphatically not a lost masterpiece. The subject matter – a variation on the Lady Godiva legend – is creepy, the post-Wagnerian musical writing is overwrought and a bit one-paced, and the score lacks the moments of fresh genius that Mascagni found so successfully in Cavalleria Rusticana 20 years earlier.

Yet it is hard not to feel that Isabeau has been hard done by. It is, after all, an opera about a woman, Isabeau, who refuses an arranged marriage and is punished for it. It has two big and demanding roles. And, whatever his limitations, Mascagni pushes his own musical boundaries – as he often did in his post-Cav works – this time with a chromatic through-composed score in the German manner. The explosive discord that opens act two is proof of that on its own.

Predictable, Isabeau is not. So, hats off once again to Opera Holland Park for taking a gamble, for it is well rewarded. The staging is too cluttered and there was a scenery malfunction on the first night, but pretty much everything else about this Isabeau is a success. Francesco Cilluffo conducted on his London debut with terrific conviction, and the City of London Sinfonia responded nobly, especially in the ambitious orchestral intermezzo that accompanies the naked ride that Isabeau is forced to undertake for refusing each of five knightly suitors.

The French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels carried the title role with emotional honesty and vocal security, as she did here last year in Leoncavallo’s Zaza, her tone never wilting under the powerful orchestral writing. In a performance that deserves wide notice, the tenor David Butt Philip has never sounded more exciting as Folco, the lover who fatefully captures Isabeau’s heart. The secondary roles are acceptably taken and the opera’s choral passages are excitingly realised.

This seems to be the first ever production of Isabeau in this country. For that reason alone it is not to be missed.

The main reason for Isabeau’s neglect is intellectual snobbery against early-20th-century Italian opera. Festivals such as OHP, Buxton and Wexford deserve huge praise for having the determination to rescue such pieces from the overwhelming condescension of fashionable groupthink.

In rep at Opera Holland Park, London, until 28 July.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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