Pietro Mascagni: Isabeau (1911)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes.

Interesting fun fact: This opera premiered in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is a complicated variant on the story of Lady Godiva.

PLOT: 1012, England (?). Princess Isabeau is ordered by her father the King to marry the winner of a tournament, she refuses and is condemned to ride nude through the streets of the city. The people demand that none look upon her during the ride under pain of blinding.  The falconer Folco, who has recently arrived and does not know the situation, sees Isabeau and falls in love with her at first sight, only to later behold her during her nude ride and is immediately set upon by the people and is arrested. He is later killed by the crowd at the behest of the villainous royal chancellor Cornelius only for her to realize that she loves him and she runs off to kill herself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTatIgLAQ6k

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Before the Palace of the King. (62 minutes)

0: The opening scene *. The opera starts off with three minutes of background fanfares (which will return throughout the opera) as a herald announces that a tournament will be immediately held to determine who will win the hand of the Princess Isabeau. After the King and Princess enter things go from chromatic to some rather lovely soft strings and eventually a chorus of delicacy rather than beauty. Cornileus, the wicked Chancellor goes into more spiel with the King about having to marry the Princess off. Most of this is dreamy mood music, sort of low-key Tristan und Isolde and it will just go on like this for the rest of the act, maybe even the entire opera….

10: Isabeau’s first words * and her conversation with the King. She does not want to choose a husband.

18: A two part arioso for Isabeau, this time of a stronger voltage **.

23: Folco arrives with his grandmother Giglietta **. It is hard to believe that we have been literally narrative stranded for over twenty-minutes in which little has happened up to now other than a princess refusing to marry and being condemned to ride naked through the streets, but the intro music for the primo don and his grandmother is rather satisfactory. He goes into a recitation of a dream he has had which he claims is of divine origin.

31: Cornelius interrogates Giglietta and Folco *, the latter looking for a job as a falconer.

37: Isabeau returns and comforts the old woman. Folco has fallen in love with her at first sight, prompting him to impress her with his falcon call ** (the first of two great tenor arias in this opera) which is successful, but he is cut by the talons of the hawk and Isbeau observes the blood.

42: There is a very sweet and noble tune in the woodwinds at this point followed by a patch of ornery string music and then a chorus as the contestants of the tournament all arrive **. Folco and Giglietta have no idea what is going on but he is excited to see Isabeau again.

47: A knight named Faidit struts about on how he will win (he doesn’t) *.

55: After more encounters between Folco and Isabeau, Cornelius and the King, there is a victorious chorus **.  Isabeau rejects each of her suitors and is supported by her cousin Ethelbert and so is condemned by her father to ride nude through the streets of the city (Godiva plot point).

ACT 2: The battlements of the Castle. (21 minutes)

0: The people are furious **, but if Isabeau must be punished then they will refuse to look at her out of respect on pain of blinding. The scene is probably the chorus at its best in this opera, all five minutes.

5: Two companions of Isabeau sing an oddly happy song **.

7: Then the ride itself takes place over a lush orchestral interlude lasting six minutes **.

13: Folco’s somewhat amazing second aria in which he condemns the people of the city **. Starts off enraged, then mellows to some low strings which grows more ardent leading to a climax.

18: On the return part of the ride Folco sees Isabeau and remarks flatteringly on how beautiful she is nude **. The aria takes on a new dimension, not quite strong enough to be ecstasy, passion perhaps? The people hear this and Cornelius condemns Folco to death. Isabeau returns and calls out his name, he recognizing that he will soon die. The act ends on a crash.

ACT 3: The Royal Oratory. (31 minutes)

0: Isabeau’s two companions sing from the Book of Hours **.

3: Isabeau comes away from prayer remembering that Folco’s grandmother has come to her and pleaded for her to spare her grandson’s life **.

6: Giglietta is then heard pleading for Folco’s life *. Isabeau comforts the old woman and vows that either she will save Folco or she will forfeit her own life. Giglietta leaves and Isabeau orders that Folco be brought to her. In the interlude that follows there is a song for a tenor voice in the distance which is worth mentioning.

18, 24: Folco has been awakened from sleep and he and Isabeau enter into a long dialogue ** in which they discuss the nature of his execution and how happy he is to die for having beheld her. Folco is lyrical and oddly happy to die, while Isabeau is accompanied mostly by ornery moods from the orchestral and can not understand why he wants to die. It takes about three or four minutes for this number to rise to the occasion but it does. There is another grand melody that pops in starting with Folco’s vocal line ** which is then taken also by Isabeau and then together.

27: Cornelius incites the people to take the law into their own hands and they mortally wound Folco. Mascagni pulls off a good crescendo here **. The last two minutes consist of a short dialogue between Isabeau and the dying Folco. He dies, the chorus screams, Isabeau commits suicide over Folco’s body, wam bam bang! Crash! and it’s over.

COMMENTS:

This opera was difficult to review. There are a few set piece arias and duets but much of the opera, especially the long, long opening act, consists of dialogues between either a soloist and the chorus or between two soloists, and the latter does not always fall under the category of a duet in the traditional sense. There is little action prior to the arrival of Folco and his nonna, really just twenty minutes of scenario set up in which we realize that Cornelius is vaguely the baddie (his motivation seems to not be that he wants Isabeau for himself so I am not sure why he destroys Folco nor why he is needed since the townspeople would probably have killed Folco anyway), there is to be a tournament for Isabeau’s hand, and she is really not all that interested in getting married at all. Folco is the most interesting character in the opera and is almost the last in a hereditary line of passionately sexy Italian tenor roles dating back to Rossini. Making his close female family member his grandmother and not his mother is a bit of a nice change (he isn’t exactly a mama’s boy). Isabeau’s motivations are relatively clear, but as a character she seems distant until her ride, like a good yet cold Turandot. The ride, of course, imparts much humanity to the character, but as she only has one word of dialogue in the second act, exclaiming the name of “Folco”, we have to wait until act 3 to really get to know her. Folco also gets most of the very best music. The best act is act two, ironic I know since it is also barely long enough to be given the title of “act”, Folco’s aria in this act is the best number in the opera. Alas there is not a single moment in this opera, including the tenor aria, that rise to the level of great, but most of the score is very good or at least good and in general the tone of the opera is dream-like, close to but not quite to the same level as Parsifal, nor as suffocating as Tristan. The first act is far too long and drawn out given how much of the narrative is presented during it (it is over half of the opera’s running time). Yet this is not a bad opera by any means, but even with its exhibitionist soprano part and ardently passionate tenor role, this isn’t a great opera either. It must be a weak B.

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