In the verismo vs critics war, verismo just won

In the verismo vs critics war, verismo just won


norman lebrecht

July 27, 2018

The combative Michael Volpe (also known as @NoisyMV), head of Holland Park Opera, has a weakness for neglected works by neo-realists of the late 19th century, especially Pietro Mascagni whose operas he has been bringing back, one by one.

Not all of them have gripped. In 2016 I wasn’t sure I’d survive Iris, a seedy summer tale of rape, brothels and suicide. My companion took flight in the interval. Last ears was Zaza.

This summer, most London critics lost patience with Isabeau, the tale of a princess whose father makes her ride naked through the town. ‘An embarrassing and misshapen dud,’ was the verdict of my Spectator colleague, Richard Bratby. ‘Clichés, codswallop and passionate music,’ was the FT’s headline.

Since the conductor is a pal, and the production is coming next year to New York City Opera, I decided to catch one of the later shows, no easy feat since the entire run was sold out, despite bad reviews. I went on the hottest night London had sweated for 32 years.

Is Isabeau a masterpiece? By no means. There are too many holes in the flimsy plot and too much patchwork in the music, with pages of orchestration sounding like they had been lifted from Strauss, Elgar and, in one intermezzo, Sibelius. These deficiencies aside, the show is redeemed by an ingenious set and pinpoint direction by Martin-Lloyd-Evans. My heart was melted by Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role and by David Butt Philip her heroic lover, Folco. Francesco Ciluffo conducted with an imposing intensity.

The two hours passed very fast. Mascagni, no genius, knew how to sing on a summer’s night. I’m still whistling the intermezzo.

The final score was verismo 1, critics 0.


  • Dominic Stafford says:

    Iris was two summers ago. Zaza was last summer.

  • Isabeaunyco says:

    Isabeau is now planned for 2019 – 2020 at New York City Opera, that is if anything is left of that company by then.

  • FS60103 says:

    Thing is, it was sold out *before* a single review appeared. So they were unlikely to have any effect on sales, though most of the critics had only praise for the performers. This is testimony to the superb work OHP have done with neglected repertoire in the past, though one might perhaps argue that Mr Volpe loves this repertoire (and particularly Mascagni, a one-hit second-rater if ever there was one) not wisely but too well.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    There is no new opera since the Rake’s Progress that is worth to join the “canon”, thus the opera houses are disinterring some “zombie” operas.

  • Novagerio says:

    Justa reminder: Zaza is by Leoncavallo.

  • Michael Volpe says:

    Glad you enjoyed it Norman,
    As FS60103 says, the production had sold out before we opened. These operas usually do now. And there were lots of good reviews too! There is more than one issue at play with this rep really..
    Firstly, of the many many operas within the late Italian repertoire we have done – and there have been many – only one would I personally call a masterpiece; Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re. Several others come close at times, like Iris, L’amico Fritz, I gioielli della Madonna, La Wally among several. The point is that the audience like them and all of them deliver moments of absolute wonder. So whilst we proselytise about these works, we don’t eulogise them or ask people to consider them masterpieces – unless they think they are (and many do.) They are just often beautiful, shocking, frightening, evocative. We do L’Arlesiana next year – our third profuction of this opera in 21 years. It is a gorgeous piece and a great night at the theatre. No more, no less.

    The reaction to them by critics is always interesting. Some know them, others are hearing them properly for the first time. We of course have been listening to them for a long time before we produce them. But I recall Michael Kennedy reviewing our first production of Iris in 1997. He recounted in his review how he had reacted to the opera the first time he’d seen it at Wexford two years previously; ‘I vowed never to listen to another semiquaver of this ‘truly dreadful piece’. Never say never.” He went on;

    Self-programmed to hate every moment, I freely admit that I found it quite tolerable….the music sounded more characterful than I had remembered. The orchestral scoring is masterly, the writing for the chorus eloquent and often thrilling.” I mean, he still didn’t like it much but his view had changed markedly.

    So sometimes, it just needs a bit of practice….!