Opera Reviews
23 April 2021
Untitled Document

Another rarity at Opera Holland Park



by Moore Parker
Mascagni: Isabeau
Opera Holland Park
18 July 2018

If viewed through a fairy-tale kaleidoscope, this year’s pig-in-the-poke at Opera Holland Park transpired to innocuously entertain with its faux historic costumes and period mobile houses by designer takis (which, albeit, were prone to either sticking or demanding serious guidance by their managers). The sliver tripart falcon which later mutates into Isabeau’s horse for the naked ride through the streets was to claim top prize for the evening’s most striking visual effect!   

Mascagni and his librettist Illica’s Lady Godiva-esque theme poses a major challenge in all its aspects, with a flimsy text and a meandering musical style which appears to see the composer striving toward the post fin-de-siècle movement while lacking the appropriate tools and indeed, inspiration. One wonder’s how Puccini might have fared with the subject matter.

Across the board, director Martin Lloyd-Evans’ character definition rather remained at a basic two-dimensional level, with the company chorus possibly enjoying the most effective guidance - and resulting impact on this particular evening.

However, despite the work’s intrinsic weaknesses, OHP surely earns laurels for balancing its guaranteed hits such as this season’s La Traviata and Così fan tutte with an oddball which - while hardly deserving further revival - certainly deserved a one-off showing, and particularly so as the premier production in the United Kingdom.

In this case, however, one might be justifiably tempted to re-christen the opera, Folco, based upon the exceptional vocal performance by David Butt Philip. The young British tenor’s robust lyric instrument boasts immaculate training, with substantial dynamic options and effortless delivery throughout his range. Serious work with a top-line coach could crown admirably clear enunciation which yet lacks a notch in style and authenticity.  

His Isabeau, Anne Sophie Duprels, is a stalwart guest of the company and - in keeping with the remaining soloists - presented a solid, reliable, figure. Unfortunately her vocalising here was accompanied by a beat in the vibrato which automatically aged the character in addition to somewhat marring the vocal line. The occasional high-lying pianissimo brought welcome respite while hinting at the pure, unadulterated Princess of the tale.

Isabeau’s Ladies-in-waiting, Ermyntrude (Nadine Benjamin) and Ermyngarde (Joanna Marie Skillett) warbled in sympathy (but not always in harmony) while, as Cornelius, George von Bergen made a rather dapper baddie with his well-pointed lyric baritone.

As the severe monarch, Raimondo, Mikhail Svetlov delivered an appropriately declamatory (if somewhat bullish) tone, nicely contrasted by Folco’s devoted grandmother Giglietta - a figure well-milked by Fiona Kimm to become the most sympathetic in the plot.

Thomas Humphreys’ promising Herald was unfortunately marred by elevated trumpeters who should have ideally been positioned backstage with monitors for their cues, while Oliver Brignall’s intense and characterful Faidit left a memorable impression.  

Francesco Cilluffo drew some fine playing from the City of London Sinfonia, while occasionally failing to ideally balance the pit (now positioned on carpeted concrete tiling rather than wooden decking) with his forces on the stage.

This is a co-production with the New York City Opera.

Text © Moore Parker
Photo © Robert Workman
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