Dramatic legend in 3 parts
Libretto: Luigi Illica
First performed: Teatro Coliseo, Buenos Aires, 2 June 1911, conducted by the composer
Mascagni is thought of as a one-hit wonder; Cavalleria rusticana (“Cav” for short) is one of the 50 most performed operas in the world, usually in a double bill with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (“Pag”). His other operas (including L’amico Fritz and Iris) rarely get staged.
Perhaps he was a victim of his own success. Cav – a full-blooded tale of passion and murder in a Sicilian village – was the opera that launched the verismo craze of the turn of the 20th century. And critics and audiences thought that nothing he did ever quite matched it. Each opera was remorselessly compared – which is hard on Mascagni. Like Massenet, he set out to do something different with each opera, often taking him far from verismo.
Certainly, Isabeau bears little resemblance to Cav. It’s a dreamy, mystical take on the Lady Godiva legend, closer to Wagner than Verdi.
We are, the libretto says, in the year 1012 –
In the fair, far days when Legend overspread the world; when, in the warm breath of a springtide of ideality, the Flower of Phantasy flourished and bloomed into the Hero or the Heroine, in lowly cottages or in the Golden Realms above—among the children of the glebe and wood or among blond maidens of high degree: the Poetry of Peoples and of Kings.
Verismo this ain’t.
Act I: Morning
Isabeau is the daughter of old King Raimondo, and a deeply pious woman, as chaste as a nun, and modest; whenever she appears in public, she wears a snow-white mantle that covers her face. Her father, though, wants an heir. He tells her that he will hold a Tournament of Love (shades of Tannhäuser!); the victor will receive Isabeau’s hand. She is unimpressed, but reluctantly agrees.
The same day, the falconer Folco arrives with his grandmother Giglietta arrive, looking for work. He falls in love with the Princess, and calls down a falcon from the skies as a gift for her.
The townsfolk arrive for the tournament.
One by one, the knights – Arundel of Westerne, Ethelbert d’Argile, Randolfo di Dublino, and Ubaldo di Guascogna – press their suit; but Isabeau rejects each one. The knights turn hostile, but an unknown knight-errant repels them. He is Ethel (!), Isabeau’s cousin, son of the brother for whom Raimondo fought the throne. The crowd think the couple make a good couple, but Messer Cornelius, the king’s evil genius, rouses him to anger. Raimondo declares that his daughter shall be punished for her pride; she shall ride naked on horseback through the town.
Act II: Midday
The people barricade themselves into their houses, so as not to see Isabeau unclad.
The Princess herself arrives, accompanied by her two maids. She removes her mantle, and, her modesty protected only by her long golden hair, mounts the palfrey.
Folco is horrified by the townsfolk’s prurience; he stands on the battlements, and throws down flowers onto Isabeau as she passes, while praising her beauty. The enraged people seize Folco, and he is sentenced to death.
Act III: Evening
Isabeau is disturbed by the events of the day, and concerned for poor Folco.
Giglietta begs her to save her grandson. Folco himself, though, is sleeping. He tells her that, like the sun and the flowers, he saw nothing improper in her nakedness. Isabeau realizes that she loves him, and will marry him – but Cornelius works up the crowd to tear Folco apart. Isabeau rushes off to kill herself.
Isabeau should, Folco says, be seen in all her beauty – but in the absence of a video recording, we’re like the townsfolk shut up in our huts, while the princess passes by.
it’s a pity, because this is is an opera for the eye as well as the ear. We lose much by not being able to see what’s going on – not just the gimmick of the naked soprano (a decade after Salome), but the mediaeval pageantry of the tournament, or Folco summoning the falcon.
It’s hard to fully appreciate it simply by listening, and, I confess, it didn’t hold my attention.
Parts of the score are Mascagni at his most refined. The two big choruses (Act I and II) are imaginatively handled, and accompanied, unusually, by the xylophone. There’s some exquisite vocal writing for Isabeau’s maids (both soprani, like all the women in the opera), as they help Isabeau mount her horse (Part II), or sing a prayer from the Book of Hours (Part III), ingenious and pure. Other parts, though, are lugubrious, conventional, or seem like Wagner copied in watercolors.
The wizard of Bayreuth’s shadow falls over the opera. The music is declamatory, the kind of heightened recit familiar from Wagner’s late works. Folco’s first aria, describing his dream, could have come out of Tristan, while Mascagni quotes the famous Tristan Chord at one point. The subject matter, too, is Wagnerian: the confusion between love and death, dreaming and waking; the simple, idealistic woodsman who sees knights riding past his house, and comes to the court; the tournament of love.
Puccini, too, comes to mind, although Mascagni may have influenced him, rather than vice versa. The contest for the chaste princess who rejects her suitors, and whose reserve is thawed by her ardent lover, anticipates Turandot. The herald’s proclamation at the start sounds a lot like the mandarin’s, while some of Folco’s lines foreshadow Calaf’s.
It’s difficult not to compare Isabeau to other, better-known and better works, but I’d like to see an enterprising company put this one on.
Lynne Strow-Piccolo (Isabeau), Adriaan van Limpt (Folco), Henk Smit (Re Raimondo), Anna Marangaki (Giglietta), Jard van Nes (Ermynthrude), Tom Haenen (Messer Cornelius), Sjef Van Wersch (Il Cavaliere Faidit), Wendela Brongeest (Ermyngarde), and Charles van Tassel (L’Araldo maggiore), with The Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra and Radio Choir. Utrecht, 1982.