Mascagni Isabeau

Ubaldo and Ethelbert  –  traditional Scottish names?

Isabeau, composed in 1911 and first performed in the Coliseo in Buenos Aires, was the tenth of Pietro Mascagni’s sixteen operas, and it is the most peculiar.  It tells the story of the daughter of a king, Raimondo, who has deliberately chosen to live a chaste life.  But her father, urged on by Cornelius, a minister who is concerned to ensure the future of the kingdom, wants an heir, and so announces that a competition of love is to be held, at which all comers will have to declare themselves, and then the princess, Isabeau, will have to choose one to be her husband.  Isabeau tolerates the competition, but refuses to choose one of the contestants, so her father punishes her by forcing her to ride naked through the town.  Isabeau, however, is loved by the citizens, and they secure a concession from the king that they will all stay indoors as Isabeau rides past, and that anyone who looks at her will be blinded.  A young countryman, Folco, who has just joined the king’s service as a falconer, does see her.  He has dreamed obsessively of a beautiful girl and realises that Isabeau is the girl in the dream.  He is captured and thrown into prison, but Isabeau visits him there and falls in love with him.  She leaves to tell her father that she has chosen a husband – and, since it is no crime for a woman to be seen naked by her husband, that Folco is innocent of any crime.  Cornelius, however, lets the citizens into the prison: outraged by Folco’s presumption, they blind him and when Isabeau returns to him she too is wounded.  Isabeau and Folco die together.

This is anything but verismo.  Mascagni’s librettist was none other than Luigi Illica, and the opera is a little masterpiece of symbolism and aestheticism.  Isabeau’s name is not Isabella, but has an unexpected masculine ending, and she is referred to not as ‘principessa’, as might be expected, but as the more old-fashioned ‘reginotta’.  She first appears dressed as a nun, although there is certainly nothing in the text to suggest that she has actually taken formal vows.  She has two ladies in waiting called Ermyntrude and Eremyngarde.  The language throughout is archaic and Illica has created an almost magical, mythological feeling by using eleven and sometimes twelve-syllabled lines, with elaborate internal rhyming patterns which make it impossible to translate effectively.

Mascagni’s music follows Illica’s fairy-tale story magnificently.  He has moved away from the traditional aspects of operatic format which he used in his earlier operas and writes in a much freer style, without distinct arias and ensembles separated by recitative.  The music can be grand and majestic, delicate and fragile, and broad and sweeping, and it is incredibly beautiful.  At times, it can sound almost like a film score – particularly Isabeau’s naked ride through the town and the scene in which Folco calls down a falcon as a symbol of his audacious, free-flying love.  The whole of the second act depicts the prelude to Isabeau’s humiliating ride and the ride itself, and yet she only sings one word in it, ‘Folco!’, when she realises that Folco has seen her naked and is likely to be blinded for his presumption.  This is an opera which requires the finest actors.  The final scene is intensely moving, with Isabeau almost a Brunnhilde figure, punished by her father for her refusal to obey him.

The whole effect is magical: Turandot meets Tristan und Isolde on the set of Lady Godiva.  Don’t miss it if ever you get a chance to see it or hear it.

But where does the tartan come in?

To find the Scottish connection we have to go to the Tournament of Love.  Illica provides a very elaborate description of the setting and the action, again, almost cinematic in its concept.

**

The first knight enters, and Cornelius announces him

‘Ubaldo di Edimburgo’

Cornelius then gestures to the herald to declaim Ubaldo’s rights of chivalry, his rights of birth, his lineage, his house, his bravery and his deeds in arms.  The herald declares ‘Lands, Castles, Feus and a hundred coffers of gold’.

The libretto then announces that ‘Ubaldo di Guascogna’ lifts his visor, and, silent and stock-still, gazes at Isabeau.  The shift from ‘Ubaldo of Edinburgh’ to ‘Ubaldo of Gascony’ is odd.  Perhaps Illica had originally included two contenders and then decided that the scene was too long and repetitive.  It is an odd error, but one that has survived.  Perhaps if there had been more performances of the opera, the discrepancy would have been removed.

Isabeau is not impressed.  She addresses Ubaldo (and again the text refers to him as Ubaldo of Gascony), saying ‘This is wealth, Sir, and not Love’.

In comes the second contender. He is announced as ‘Arundel of Westerne’.  His achievements are announced as ‘Wars, Tournaments, Ambushes’, and again, Isabeau rejects him.

A third suitor enters.  He is announced as

‘Ethelberto di Argile’

All of these knights bear names and provenances which sounded romantic and chivalrous to Illica.  It is not known whether he used any written source for this story, or whether he had in mind any particular geographic pattern for his knightly contenders, but the chances are that for this third contestant he meant ‘Ethelbert of Argyll’.  Anyway, Scottish or not, Ethelbert’s qualifications for applying for the post of Isabeau’s husband are given as ‘Deeds of high honour’, which do not impress Isabeau and she keeps silent.

A fourth applicant now comes forward.  He is ‘Randolfo of Dublin, and when the herald announces his credits as ‘He conquered the Sultan at Acre’, Isabeau rejects him too, stating firmly that ‘Bravery is not Love’.

The fifth applicant for Isabeau’s hand is a sad figure.  He is a mysterious ‘Faidit knight’, a knight who has suffered misfortune.  There is no announcement, and this knight brings a covered coat of arms, no motto, no name – he simply kneels before the king before turning to Isabeau and stating (‘voce dolcissima’ – in the sweetest of voices) that his bare helmet once bore a crown, but he had it removed by his own choice.  He has been banished but not, he says, because of any lack of activity.  He begs for mercy.  Isabeau offers him a ring, saying ‘Knight of Sorrow; may your silent coat of arms be brightened by this jewel – my heart gives it light’.  A ripple runs through the court, but she continues, ‘Love … No.  Pity is not love’.  Sadly, the mysterious knight kisses the ring and withdraws.

No winner has been chosen, and the unsuccessful knights announce that a competition requires a winner, and without one, the contest is a fraud.  They challenge the authority of the king by throwing down a gauntlet.  There is uproar in the hall, and the king stands, white with fury.  But the faidit knight steps forward and asks the king to restore the power to his coat of arms.  The king agrees, and the covering is removed from the knight’s coat of arms: it is identical with the king’s own arms.  The identity of the knight is revealed, he is Ethel, the son of King Raimondo’s brother, who submitted to banishment under chivalric law in atonement for his father’s disloyal actions against Raimondo in the fierce war of succession between the two brothers.

So, of the five contenders in the bizarre Tournament of Love, we have Ethel, the home-grown faidit knight, Arundel of Westerne and Randolfo of Dublin, and we have the two knights who are probably of Scottish origin – Ubaldo of Edinburgh (or maybe Gascony), and Ethelberto of Argyll.  And these two Scottish knights are the tartan link in this edition of Scotch Corner.

Performances of Isabeau are rare – in fact performance of most of Mascagni’s operas are rare, but they have all been recorded. Isabeau is available on CD from Bongiovanni of Bologna in a live recording made on St Valentine’s Day 1982 in Utrecht.  The Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra and Radio Choir are conducted by Kees Bakel, Lynne Strow Piccolo sings Isabeau and Adriaan van Limpt sings Folco.

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