Isabeau is basically
the story of Lady Godiva with a twist
to the ending; Isabeau, who began as
an ice-cold maiden in the Turandot mould,
falls in love with her Peeping-Tom (Folco)
and they face liberating death together.
For her 1962 San Remo performance, followed
by the studio recording of the present
extracts, Marcella Pobbe simulated nudity
with a pink body-stocking. The opera
might yet make a crowd-puller with a
singer prepared to go the Full Monty.
It has been suggested
that the later Mascagni gave himself
a veneer of modernism by dabbling in
harmonies and orchestral sounds he didn’t
really understand and by planting angular
vocal lines on top of it all, a view
I vigorously refuted when
I wrote about Il Piccolo Marat.
It hardly seems to call for further
refutation when the items recorded here
speak so eloquently; nobody could arrive
at such a panoply of orchestral richness
and harmonic variety by accident. The
intermezzo is a glorious piece – a Mascagni
intermezzo to end all Mascagni intermezzos.
With its soaring melodic line, its bittersweet
harmonies and its luscious countermelodies,
all heard against a backdrop of clanging
bells, it combines the best features
of Puccini and Mahler to create a personal
language of its own. But this same comment,
indeed, will go for most of the rest.
And the vocal writing?
Put it this way, a soprano who can sing
"Electra" with sufficient
ease to sing "Salomé"
the same night will have no difficulty
with Isabeau… Macagni expected big voices
and he worked them hard; no doubt this
is one reason why Puccini’s more considerate
writing made greater headway. But singers
who are up to it have always enjoyed
the challenge. One such was Marcella
Pobbe, who returned to the piece – with
the same tenor as here – ten years later
in Naples, with Ugo Ràpalo conducting.
Her shining, seemingly tireless tones
and clear diction make light of the
music’s demands. I
appreciated the recital disc recently
dedicated to Pobbe in Warner Fonit’s
"Portraits" series but nothing
I have heard from her before prepared
me for singing of this magnificence
and authority. It must surely be her
major contribution to recorded opera.
Pier Miranda Ferraro has not a voice
of this quality but he is big and strong
enough to cope with the part, and that
is no mean achievement. Rinaldo Rola
is an adequate King.
Tullio Serafin conducted
the première of this work in
Buenos Aires in 1911, as well as one
of the Italian premières, at
La Scala; the opera was given contemporaneously
in Venice under the composer. Unlike
his younger compatriot Gianandrea Gavazzeni,
Serafin held no particular torch for
the veristi, but he thought highly
enough of the work to revive it at La
Scala in 1945, as well as leading the
San Remo performance which celebrated
the work’s 50th anniversary.
Under his experienced and passionate
direction the provincial San Remo orchestra
acquits itself very creditably. The
recording is mostly acceptable for its
age, though with very close voices and
a patch of distortion in the third part.
Whatever the drawbacks of the opera
may be when heard complete, on the strength
of what we have here it demands revival.
Tapes of the preceding
live performance (complete) have survived
and are available from various sources,
as is Pobbe’s 1972 Naples performance
and a 1982 Dutch one under Kees Bakels.
I am unable to comment on any of these.
The disc is completed
by three "Arie antiche" recorded
by Pobbe in 1959. Unfortunately there
is some suspect intonation in the Carissimi
piece. These piano-accompanied arias,
the Italian equivalent of the "Olde
Worlde Teashoppe", are unlikely
to do much for listeners today; the
shame of it is that they are still going
strong in Italian Conservatoires where
it is considered that, if they are sung
in a lushly unauthentic manner (as here),
they make a good stepping-stone to bel
canto. ’Nuff said.