It is Opera Holland Park favourite Anne Sophie Duprels who sheds her virginal robes with simplicity in a production by the team behind last year's five-star La Rondine: director Martin Lloyd Evans and designer takis. They set the action unflinchingly in a non-site-specific Camelot, land of tunics and eye-gouging. The man in row O with the binoculars may have been disappointed – this humiliating ride is tastefully done, a War Horse-style metal steed bearing the princess.
But how is the modern audience to cope with the toxic values of this patriarchy? At Opera Holland Park it gets a big helping hand from the stupendous reading by the City of London Sinfonia of a lush and colourful score, enriched by bells and a vast percussion section, complete with clippety-clops. Italian-born conductor Francesco Cilluffo making his OHP debut steers an unfaltering path through his countryman's florid music.
Astonishingly, despite the composer Mascagni's earlier monster hit in Cavalleria Rusticana, Isabeau has never before been staged in Britain. Knocking off a British premiere is all in a day's work for this indefatigable and visionary company, which sees to the farthest horizons, whether developing repertoire and audiences or handing up new singers. Recent successes include Mascagni's Iris in 2016 and Leoncavallo's Zazà in 2017.
With descendants of Mascagni in the audience, this UK premiere bristled with expectation on first night. And no one would come away disappointed by the event itself, but they will probably have been somewhat befuddled by the score that sometimes sounds as though unnumbered pages fell on the floor and were put back in any old order in a folder marked Strange Music.
The tenor David Butt Philip, a casting coup for OHP, demonstrates as honest lover Falco the fabulous tone and intensely musical phrasing (a gift not all singers have, oddly) that make him so in demand today. See him again soon in Boris Godunov (Royal Opera House, June 2019) and in Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera.)
Duprels in her thankless role is customarily gracious and sings from the heart, although the tremor in the voice is not to all tastes. The Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov, who was impressive in last year's excellent Kat'a Kabanova, gives King Raimondo the pigheaded obstinacy of self-belief, and it was a treat to see old hand Fiona Kimm as Falco's encouraging grandmother.
Part of me would like to have seen the whole shooting match transposed to the present day – ordering women about and telling them to get their kit off did not end with the Middle Ages. As it is, the absence from the repertoire of this remote, muddled and in many ways unpleasant opera is not hard to understand.
Absolutely do catch this rare opportunity, but be prepared for a musical and emotional rollercoaster which requires a stout constitution.
'Isabeau' is sung in Italian with English surtitles. There are further performances on 18, 20, 26 and 28 July
|What||Isabeau review , Opera Holland Park|
|Where||Opera Holland Park, Stable Yard, Holland Park, London , W8 6LU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
14 Jul 18 – 28 Jul 18, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£20 - £76|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|