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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Isabeau – Dramatic Legend in Three Parts (1911): Extracts: Part I – Il Mattino: Voi siete il Re, Tu ch’odi le mie grida, Mentre piango tu inneggi? Part II – Il Meriggio: Intermezzo, O popolo di vili, Part III – La Sera: Venne una vecchierella a la mia corte, Dormivi?… Sognavo!
Marcella Pobbe (Isabeau), Rinaldo Rola (Re Raimondo), Pier Miranda Ferraro (Folco), Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo/Tullio Serafin
Recorded in January 1962 at San Remo
Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674)

Piangete aure, piangete
Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)

Se tu m’ami
Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740-1816)

Donne vaghe (from "Le virtuose ridicole")
Marcella Pobbe (soprano), Giorgio Favaretto (piano)
Recorded 8-10 July 1959, Rome
WARNER FONIT 5050467-1045-2-5 [56:42]

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.

Christopher Howell

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