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Isabeau - off the beaten path (just)

Among the major producing companies, very few beyond Opera Holland Park explore the repertoire of the late 19th or early 20th century and it is a period from which some quite astonishing music emerged. Anoraks will no doubt be able to produce a list of companies and productions who do dabble, but that won’t change the reality that we are just about the most regular producers of such ‘enjoyable tosh’ (as one esteemed critic calls them) possibly in Europe.  Since OHP was born in 1996 we have produced operas by Mascagni, Cilea, Giordano, Ponchielli, Montemezzi, Zandonai, Leoncavallo, Wolf-Ferrari, Menotti and Catalani.

The common thread that joins most of these composers is that they were all part of a movement known as the giovane scuola (young school) and then in time, as the modern world took over, they came to represent what Allan Mallach called the Autumn of Italian opera; the last great flowering of Italian operatic invention and one that was looking northwards towards Wagner and Strauss for inspiration. Many of these operas are still referred to as "verismo" which in certain circles has become something of a pejorative term, but the truth is that very few are, even though they may have emanated from that brief burst of operatic creativity. Indeed, Mascagni spent his life running away from the moniker after Cavalleria Rusticana wowed the world.

British opera audiences are, at their very heart, pretty conservative and feel most comfortable with works they know. This is neither surprising nor a great revelation, but I have found over the years that they also have some misconceptions about composers and feel intimidated by something they have never heard. The listening habits of opera audiences can be conventional too; they often sit and wait for those big tunes that they know and love and often miss the narrative music and the ebb and flow of innovation that can be heard in the orchestra, for example. I think that is why so few people agree with me that Fanciulla del West is Puccini’s finest opera because you can wait a while for a big number to turn up in that piece, but it is, nevertheless, his most sumptuously inventive score.  Operas that don’t have well known arias are often considered to be lacking in them altogether but frequently this is not the case at all.

I have a theory that I have expounded for several years to all that will listen – and to those who won’t, I express it anyway  - and it is that some of these operas contain moments and passages of music that surpass anything written by Puccini, or Verdi for that matter. Puccini was a genius, a man of the theatre, able to manipulate and control the emotions of his audience and he was also a colossus whose shadow most of these composers lived in for most of their careers. If you took the entire repertoire of Puccini and gave it an average mark it would probably be around 7.5 out of ten. If you take the career of Mascagni you might give him a 6.5 for his entire canon, but he hit the heights of 9 and 10 out of ten more frequently than the composer of Tosca. Like most people, I adore Puccini but he never, ever wrote a piece of music to rival the lustful, predatory outpourings of  Mascagni’s tenor lead in act 2 of Iris, nor wrote a chorus to match the sheer majesty of Mascagni’s Hymn to the Sun from that same opera. And these moments of apex musicality occur in all of the rarities we have produced at Holland Park. 

The weakness of these composers was not their lack of invention or mastery of their craft but in their consistency and stamina. And some of the pieces have weak librettos that can hamstring them in the eyes of an audience that appear to prefer complex conflicts and scenery chewing libretti rather than what some of these operas offer which are straight to the heart love stories. They were also trying to create something new, a fresh Italian voice that drew on other styles and influences; as such, complications were bound to arise.

Over the years, tens of thousands of people at OHP have come to love and expect these rare jewels in our season. Even I, an arch evangelist for the movement, would have to confess that few are unchallenged masterpieces in their entirety but all of them have music that rewards time and again. Of all of those operas we have produced in this vein, perhaps only one is an unimpeachable masterpiece and that is Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re. Rarely will you hear a more febrile, exotic or erotic love duet than the one featured in this opera. But it was an opera that we took ten years to bring to the stage; it was that long before we thought audiences were ready to give the opera a chance and, when we did, and they flocked to see the opera, it was easy to chide ourselves for waiting so long. But rarities and the British audience are not an easy proposition and they must, unfortunately, be handled very carefully indeed.

This unfamiliarity is something of an irony. With years of building an audience for this repertoire behind us there is something of a joy to be had in using a lack of experience of a piece to heighten the impact. The concoction of these elements, along with the raw and visceral music these operas offer can come together to create magical productions that live long in the memory of all who see them. That is an alchemy that I often marvel at whilst at the same time remain perplexed that we are among the few taking advantage of it. Naturally, I am not too unhappy that this should be the case.

Our latest contribution to the London repertoire, Mascagni’s Isabeau is another sell-out. In fact, these operas have become as predictable in their sales as any of the pops. Last year, Leoncavallo’s Zaza was the first to fill and Isabeau is the same. After twenty-one years, one might think this a natural result of many successful productions – and that is a factor – but it is worth remembering that our very first production from this repertoire (Mascagni’s Iris in 1997) was so popular, and was greeted with such febrile interest, we immediately revived it in 1998 when it sold out again. The costumes were a huge factor – the couturiers Charles and Patricia Lester designed them – attracting huge amounts of press and even a whole pavement of Liberty’s windows featured the production. But we were able – even in the pre-streaming/social media world – to get the music out to the public. Sony re-issued the Domingo CD and we sold it direct to patrons at cost price, shifting so many that if those sales had been through shops, it would have been a soaraway number one album. Nowadays people can quickly learn something about the music by going onto YouTube and that surely helps the process, but there is more to it. 

It is unquestioned that there has been something of a tailing off in the enormous and hitherto predictable popularity of the classic repertoire. Some of this is down to scepticism of ‘director opera’; our Traviata and Cosi this season, whilst both being very popular to begin with, both also enjoyed ‘late’ rushes to sell out because the word of mouth on them had been so good. Audiences will clearly continue to want to see these pieces, but they are beginning to put hard caveats on sitting through another Traviataor Tosca. So what we are finding is that when a patron comes to select their operas for the season, they tend to go straight for the one they don’t know – BUT, safe in the knowledge that our repertory choices are in an idiom they know they are likely to appreciate. Therefore, it is still, in a sense, a safe, conservative choice. A patron who rushes to Isabeau is absolutely not a person who will reliably rush to either a new work, or even one by Janacek or Britten. 

Personally, I think it would be wonderful if the ROH and other major houses around the world began to present this repertoire more frequently – there is still so much to explore and audiences like it when they hear it. New opera has its place of course, but in terms of volume and filling houses, there are still rare works that satisfy the standard audience expectation of what enjoyable, accessible opera is, and freshening up the repertoire is not wholly dependent on modernity.


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