A new opera for the New World?

On May 2, 1911, the composer and conductor Pietro Mascagni arrived in Buenos Aires on the SS Tommaso di Savoia and was met by a crowd of over 50,000 people. A significant outpost of Italian musical culture in the New World, the Teatro Coliseo was mounting a season that included performances of Mascagni’s operas Cavalleria rusticana, L’amico Fritz, Guglielmo Ratcliff, Iris and Amica, and the world premiere of his tenth opera, Isabeau: a voluptuous fusion of Italian lyricism and chromatic Wagnerian harmonies.

Transfigured by love

Inspired by Tennyson’s 1840 poem on the mediaeval legend of Lady Godiva, the librettist Luigi Illica had drafted a treatment in which the Godiva figure became the chaste daughter of a weak king who is manipulated by a sinister courtier. The character of Peeping Tom was transformed into a visionary falconer who charms wild birds and is the only citizen to see Isabeau naked and to glory in a sight that others see as shaming. Like the lovers in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which Mascagni conducted in 1909, Isabeau and Folco are transfigured by mutual, illicit love.

An Italian Wagner

As early as 1905, Mascagni had said, ‘I feel myself profoundly Wagnerian, while in spirit and form I remain more than ever Italian.’ In Isabeau, the composer who had invented verismo opera with Cavalleria rusticana began to reconcile the two halves of his musical personality, building on the thrilling writing for chorus that he had first explored in the ‘Hymn to the Sun’ in Iris. Transalpine influences from the operas of Strauss, and dreamlike motifs from the Symbolist dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck, are juxtaposed with a decadent, bell-rich, orchestral Intermezzo that Mascagni dedicated to his young lover, Anna Lolli.

Religion and eroticism

Religion and eroticism blur in Isabeau, as they do in Tennyson’s poem and earlier accounts of Godiva’s life and the legend of Saint Agnes. Choruses of devotion (‘Sulla fida chinea bianca’) and fury (‘A morte! A morte!’), and a spectacular tournament for the hand of Isabeau contrast with a delicate reconstruction of a fourteenth century motet for two female voices (‘Cantilena sacra in forma di cuore’), sung by Isabeau’s ladies-in-waiting, Ermyntrude and Ermyngarde. Cherished party pieces for a generation of great Italian tenors before World War Two, Folco’s heroic arias, ‘Tu ch’odi lo mio grido’ and ‘Gigli al bel giglio’ are capped with a love duet of extraordinary intensity, ‘I tuoi occhi’, in Act III.