The clothes worn by young people are such a fraught subject. It’s like an unacknowledged right of passage for successive generations to produce offspring and then complain loudly about whatever they choose to wear, in exactly the same way their own parents complained loudly about whatever they wanted to wear. Is it too baggy? Too short? Too black/demin/colourful/sparkly? Particularly where girls are concerned, it’s assumed the you’re-not-going-out-dressed-like-that conflict will stem from too little material being worn: how dare they walk around in crop tops and mini skirts?! But it’s really just the same if they choose to wear a lot of clothes. Big hoodies, baggy jeans, layers of black, you name it and there’s an adult somewhere who has a problem with it.
Pietro Mascagni’s rarely-performed opera Isabeau is a riff on the Lady Godiva myth. In the composer’s version of the story, the heroine (Anne Sophie Duprels) is the daughter of King Raymondo (Mikhail Svetlov), a cantankerous man surrounded by creepy sycophants whispering in his ears. Unlike some version of the Godiva story, this one isn’t set in old Coventry, but another generalised medieval setting. The plot plays out like this:
- Father wants Daughter to get married.
- Daughter does not want to get married, especially to the strange succession of So-and-so-of-such-and-such knights that daddy wheels out for the public occasion.
- Daughter greatly angers father by asserting her right to choose who she has sex and raises a child with.
- Father orders Daughter to take off all her clothes and parade naked through the streets on her beloved white horse.
It’s at this point that the plot alter into a parallel love story in which Isabeau meets Folco (David Butt Philip), the only man in the village who doesn’t conform by averting his eyes and battening down the hatches when the unclothed Isabeau appears. Peeping Tom, however, isn’t what he may seem. Folco believes Isabaeu’s naked form should be celebrated – revered, even. He sees no shame in her nakedness, unlike her father and others obviously do, otherwise getting her to undress would not be an effective form of punishment.
Like many lesser-performed operas (a genre Opera Holland Park specialise in reviving), Isabeau isn’t straightforwardly a forgotten masterpiece (and to be fair, a lot of frequently-performed operas are not masterpieces either). It’s hampered here by a cumbersome and lumpy set design always on the brink of malfunctioning, but sung well especially by Butt Philip and Duprels. There are some silly sections, in particular with the parade of suitors, and some superfluous ones, like a slightly unclear passage involving the princess and her ladies-in-waiting. But being too harsh on it as a staging probably fails to appreciate the communal joy of outdoor summer performances and how well works accused of being ‘light’ or ‘slight’ can function in them.
Isabeau is also interesting for another reason, one that Luigi Illica’s libretto picks up on. This isn’t just a story about a woman wanting to choose her husband, it’s also a story about a woman wanting to choose what she wears. In Isabeau’s case, the outfit she favours involves a large cloak, worn as part of her religious beliefs. It’s notable that when Raymondo starts prescribing husbands, his daughter blatantly doesn’t want to go along with the plans, yet very reluctantly acquiesces. But then he tells her to take of her cloak and that’s when she speaks up.
Like so many tales, Isabeau is essentially a story about a man demanding control over a woman’s body. Raymondo draws up what he knows to be the cruellest punishment for his daughter (not predicting at that point Folco will come along) because he can’t stand the idea of her having autonomy. And in the courtly setting, pretty much the only decision Isabeau can make is about what to wear. Which is really at the heart of why fashion choices of all kinds irk some adults so much, and why they mean so much to the people making them. Suggesting bad love matches to Isabeau is one thing, but tell her what (not) to wear? She’s not having any of it.
Isabeau is on until 28 July 2018 at Opera Holland Park. Click here for more details.