Iris was a thoroughly absorbing evening at the opera, and the loose ends in the story line finally disappear into the overall satisfying musical achievement of a composer who is still under-appreciated, and a company fully capable of doing justice to his operatic style.

IrisThe opening production of this year’s Holland Park Opera Festival revisits one of its earliest successes. Iris was first performed to acclaim here in 1997, and set the pattern for a sequence of rediscoveries of repertory from the era of Italian verismo that stands as one of the major long-term achievements of the company. While in no way downgrading the significant of Verdi and Puccini, Opera Holland Park has allowed us to see over the last twenty years just how much of value remains to be unearthed even in the work of composers, such as Mascagni, who are well known at least for one opera, if not for more.

Iris is a full-length three-act opera with a libretto by Luigi Illica, who also provided the majority of texts for Puccini’s early masterpieces, including Madama Butterfly, with which this opera is often unfavourably compared. While there is no doubt that Butterfly is the greater work, both dramatically and in terms of musical integration, the comparison is in many ways unhelpful. Iris was written earlier, not long after Mascagni’s first major success with Cavelleria Rusticana, and is part of the first wave of enthusiasm in southern Europe for all things Japanese, a fashion that had reached northern Europe first, not least through a series of notable exhibitions, which triggered The Mikado in 1885.

The opera opens in a poor area of Tokyo, where Iris and her blind father live a simple and sheltered life. Osaka, a rich young man who is captivated by her innocent beauty, conspires with brothel keeper Kyoto to kidnap Iris and spirit her off to the red-light district. This they achieve by means of a puppet-play, which draws her away from the safety of home. What follows in Act Two is rapid-fire verismo at its most deliberately shocking as Iris awakes in the brothel thinking she has gone to heaven before having to confront an ever-mounting set of indignities at the hands of Osaka and Kyoto, culminating in her public exhibition in a window, and cursing by her father. She attempts to kill herself by self-immolation in the pit reserved for geishas, but revives long enough, when rag-pickers arrive to strip her body, to engage in a final dialogue with symbolic representation of Osaka, Kyoto and her father – embodiments of Pleasure, a Vampire and Death.

IrisDramatically this is all something of a mish-mash, but the quality of the music and the added value of a truly committed production, such as this, does a lot to compensate. There are fine showpiece arias for all the lead roles, especially Osaka and Iris, and some truly magnificent choral writing, with the two hymns to the sun, which book-end the opera, standing out above all. While there are few immediately hummable melodies, the orchestral writing is consistently inventive in texture and sonority. It acknowledges Japanese influences and colourings in the instrumentation and harmonies without indulging in out-and-out orientalism.

This is a well-crafted, memorable opera, fully deserving of a regular hearing, but it is not a lost masterpiece. There is a fuzziness of meaning and lack of coherence in its characterisation that ultimately prevents it reaching that level. The impressive pantheism of the opening and close, embracing the sun as the source of life and love, fails to mesh with the wretched tale of innocence betrayed that forms the core of the plot. While there are attempts to join the symbolism of the opening to the narrative in the way that the characters are identified with particular principles of good and evil, this is not followed through in detail. As a result the characters are neither three-dimensional enough to be fully sympathetic or realistic, nor coherently through-written as symbols. It falls between two stools.

It would perhaps have been better to have stuck to the simpler formula of shocking realistic narrative, and closed the opera at the end of Act Two, a natural climax which is very well tied together in the music. Indeed several of the audience around me thought we had reached the end at that point. The conclusion provided remains unsatisfying because Iris herself first takes the limelight at last in anticipation of a heroic ending, and then blends away confusingly into the chorus. What is one to make of this?

IrisCavils of dramaturgy aside, this is a very satisfying evening. The City of London Sinfonia is in top form, apparently relishing the challenge of an unfamiliar score, and they are conducted with precision and flair by Stuart Stratford, who paces the piece impeccably. Soutra Gilmour’s designs are lucid, unfussy and very different from the previous Holland Park production. Three bamboo cages dominate the set as appropriate images of physical and psychological imprisonment, and the historical and cultural milieu is sketched in economically and with a light touch – large paper lotus flowers, lavish fabrics for the puppet show and brothel scenes, sober tones for the chorus of the urban poor, and gritty, dirt scrabble for the final scene of degradation.

Holland Park Opera has a very wide but shallow stage where the challenge is to fill the space with action while avoiding protracted entrances and exits which slow down the pace. Olivia Fuchs handles the crowd scenes very capably, while not losing the spots of intimacy and private communing that are an important part of this opera – we picked up the delicacy of Iris herself as well as the brashness of the public drama.

The large chorus of some forty singers were very impressive, as usual, and they seethed and drifted across the stage naturally thanks to the choreography of Charlotte Edmonds and Namiko Gahier-Ogawa, who also did excellent work with the three professional dancers in the puppet show.

The principals were all competent actors but the singing was variable in quality. This opera stands or falls on the performance at its heart, and here Ann Sophie Duprels was superb. Her character is on-stage pretty much throughout, and she has to portray a wide range of emotional states above and beyond fragile innocence and victimhood. She pushed successfully at the boundaries of the part created here, and was vocally assured for the duration, while acting with fragility and vulnerability.

IrisAs Osaka, Noah Stewart was physically authoritative but not always equal to the vocal demands of the lead tenor role. James Cleverton, as Kyoto, was more than a pantomime villain, acting plausibly all the time even when not at the centre of the action, and Mikhail Svetlov was sonorous and inflexibly unforgiving as the blind father.

This was a thoroughly absorbing evening at the opera, and the loose ends in the story line finally disappear into the overall satisfying musical achievement of a composer who is still under-appreciated, and a company fully capable of doing justice to his operatic style.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…