Tullio Serafin

Mascagni: Isabeau [Highlights]

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Few operas have a history as convoluted as Pietro Mascagni's Isabeau. Inspired by Tennyson's poem about eleventh century English noblewoman Lady Godiva, Isabeau was one of librettist Luigi Ilica's worst ideas. It began life as "Ysobel," an opera written expressly for an American company headed by the talented, but limited, soprano Bessie Abott. Mascagni proved unable to arrive in New York to prepare the work, and as Abott and her opera company sank into ruin, "Ysobel," now re-christened Isabeau, nonetheless opened in Buenos Aires with Rosa Raisa in the lead. The title role is not a difficult one, and most of the music is written in a very high soprano range, like that belonging to Abott. While there's no denying that it's a ludicrous property -- the lead soprano is required to simulate Godiva's famous nude ride wearing a flesh-colored body stocking -- in Italy and in Spanish speaking lands Isabeau is periodically revived as a vehicle to highlight second-string sopranos. Although she was not so much inferior as supremely unlucky in her career choices, soprano Marcella Pobbe was the one opera diva who made something of a specialty of Isabeau.

Warner Fonit's Mascagni: Isabeau (Highlights) represents a very short selection drawn from the opera, recorded in 1962; lasting only 44 minutes, it doesn't even include an overture. It does include an intermezzo from the second part of the opera. Mascagni was famous for his orchestral intermezzi, but this mélange of Italian spaghetti and Wagnerian high romanticism results in a dish that tastes slightly burnt. Conductor Tullio Serafin, who had led the Italian premiere of Isabeau in 1912 and was 84 years old in 1962, deserves credit for wringing just the right phrasing out of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo, if not conquering its wary intonation. This body of musicians mainly devoted its efforts to backing up singers in Neapolitan pop, and do not adapt too well to this hybrid of Wagner and verismo.

Marcella Pobbe is the only thing "good" about Isabeau; she knows the part and sings it well. Three very pleasant Baroque arias, performed the old-fashioned way with piano, help to fill out what would have been a rather short opera CD. Nonetheless, Mascagni: Isabeau (Highlights) is at best a guilty pleasure summed up best by the gloriously tacky inside photo of Pobbe unveiling her flesh-colored body stocking, complete with medieval sentries standing with spears at attention -- this is a level of kitsch only Grand Opera can truly attain.

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