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Iris by Opera Holland Park
08 Jun 2016

Pietro Mascagni: Iris

There can’t be that many operas that start with an extended solo for double bass. At Holland Park, the eerie, angular melody for lone bass player which opens Pietro Mascagni’s Iris immediately unsettled the relaxed mood of the summer evening.

Pietro Mascagni: Iris

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iris by Opera Holland Park


Joined by the gentle muted chords of solo strings and the eerie ring of quiet timpani and tam-tam, it formed the first of the opera’s strange instrumental colourings which recreate the exotic imagery of Luigi Illica’s libretto for Mascagni’s tale of degraded and redeemed innocence.

It’s hard to whisk an audience in an instant from a bright, humid London evening — punctuated by motorbikes on Kensington High Street and helicopters hovering insistently overhead — to the cool waters of a Japanese rice terrace in the Edo period, but during Mascagni’s long, atmospheric orchestral prelude conductor Stuart Stratford gradually filled in the shades of the canvas to transport us to a mystical Orient: translucent divided strings were supported by rippling clarinet and harp, sweet horns blended warmly with oboe and cor anglais. Here and throughout the evening, Stratford lavished real affection and care on Mascagni’s experimental score, and the members of the City of London Sinfonia relished the gloriously diverse colours and textures, from the lustrous to the opaque.

Our journey eastwards was aided by the samurai-styled movements of three dancers, choreographed with subtle nuance by Charlotte Edmonds, and the solemn, formal gestures of the Opera Holland Park Chorus (movement director, Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) were equally persuasive. Playing with evolving animation and power, the orchestral sound blossomed through the prelude, like the opening of a lotus flower, and they were be joined in apotheosis by the Chorus — peasants in simple blue kimonos and culottes. Chorus Master Nicholas Jenkins has done a tremendous job and whether laundresses, geishas, or the clamouring clients of Tokyo’s red light district, the OHP Chorus were central to the action and mighty of voice. At the climax of the opening choral hymn to the sun, ‘Inno al Sole’, they faced the audience in a line stretching the full length of the Holland Park stage, achieving astonishing vibrancy and power.

Soutra Gilmour’s set blends realism and symbol. It’s beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan in complementary oranges and blues, suggestive of the opera’s dualities — urban versus rural, excess versus simplicity, degeneracy versus innocence — which are reflected in the costumes, too, the peasants’ indigos contrasting with the pinks and oranges of the insubstantial gowns that Iris is forced to wear in her later degradation.

Fuchs begins with a quotidian scene. Peasant workers weave between white lilies, harvesting rice in the paddy fields. Square, bamboo cages, slightly raised, suggest both traditional Yayoi houses, resting on rafts raised on stilts, and the sexual trafficking of the Karayuki-san — Japanese girls and women who were taken from poverty stricken agricultural prefectures Japan and forced into the sex industry — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And this is a fitting double-image, for Iris tells the tawdry, tasteless tragedy of the eponymous daughter of an old blind man who is kidnapped by Osaka, a young libertine, with the aid of his unsavoury procurer, the brothel-keeper Kyoto. The two reprobates disguise themselves as travelling puppeteers and Osaka’s enacted serenade seduces the sensitive, imaginative Iris, sending her into a trance. Conducted to the brothel, Iris resists Osaka’s aggressive advances and the latter tires of the very unworldliness which has so enticed him. Kyoto exposes and humiliates the young girl before a crowd of ogling citizens. And, in this piteous state she is found by her father who curses her. Overcome with shame, she throws herself into the pit reserved for fallen Geishas. Forget Tosca, If ever an opera deserved Joseph Kerman’s epithet, ‘shabby little shocker’, it’s Mascagni’s mucky melodrama.

Much rests on the title role — the only character to undergo any ‘development’. Anne Sophie Duprels gave a stunning performance, especially in the emotionally charged second Act. Without undue mannerism, she successfully conjured the naivety and freshness of a young girl who has no knowledge or understanding of the darker sides of life. Whether nonchalantly swinging her legs by the stream, clutching her rag doll tightly to protect it from the monsters which threaten it in her dreams, or so utterly absorbed by a puppet show that she engages in a duet with her make-believe alter ego, Duprels was credible and sincere. Vocally she was stunning. Her voice floated easily over the large orchestra, by turns a silvery thread or a gorgeous stream, always focused and sensitively phrased. She exhibited impressive musical awareness and technical control, and was able to marry the two to create a moving portrayal. Awaking in a seedy brothel, her belief that the flimsy painted walls which surround her belong to paradise was heart-breaking in its artless misconception. And, Iris’s Act 2 aria, ‘Un dì, ero piccina’, in which she describes a Buddhist screen she had seen as a child on which was depicted an octopus coiling its tentacles around a young girl, evoked tender pathos.

Osaka is a ‘schizophrenic role’ in that this odious character sings glorious music. Noah Stewart was an appealing Osaka — against the dramatic odds, but perhaps aided by the physical appeal of his shirtless pectorals — who managed in Act 2 to suggest that the shallow lecher is touched, indeed driven to dejection and hopelessness, by genuine feeling and ardour when he recognises what he has lost by his contemptuous dismissal of Iris. Osaka’s Act 1 serenade, ‘Apri la tua finestra’, is challenging in terms of both tessitura and musical complexity. Stewart had the power and the high notes, but there was an occasional roughness to the voice, some wayward intonation and little tonal diversity. The latter, together with a lack of dynamic variety, was noticeable throughout, but the Act 2 seduction — where Fuchs did not refrain from emphasising the discomforting voyeuristic element of the scene — show-cased the wonderful fullness and glossiness of Stewart’s tenor.

Kyoto is a cynical, callous whore-monger and James Cleverton’s clarity and focus were as unwavering as his character’s smug egocentrism. Mikhail Svetlov gave genuine dramatic shape and weight to the role of the blind father, speaking and singing with a tone of dark gravity. We felt for him in his loss, delusion and suffering, just as we condemned his cruel rejection of his maltreated daughter.

Johane Ansell sang beguilingly as the Geisha, drawing us into the play-within-a-play; indeed this mini-drama was so persuasively performed by the three dancers that it risked diverting us from the abduction of Iris being conducted on the far side of the stage! The minor roles were securely sung by members of the Chorus.

Fuchs’ direction is convincing — and chilling. In Act 2, the geishas cower in a cage, both victims and accomplices of Kyoto, complicit in Iris’s abuse and complaisant as to her fate. As we see the vulnerable girl baited and ogled, defenceless against an evil that she does not comprehend, today’s trafficked children and migrants came all too clearly to mind.

The close of Mascagni’s best-loved opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, is swift: Turridu has scarcely taken leave of his mother to fight the duel with Alfio, when a woman screams ‘Turiddu was killed!’, and Lucia and Santuzza collapse in shock and horror. Act 2 of Iris closes with similar, disquieting alacrity. Scantily clad before a baying, braying crowd of oglers, Iris is discovered by her father who condemns her as a slut, spits and throws mud at his ‘dishonoured’ daughter. In despair, in this production, she stabs herself.

There it might end, the shock unpalliated, the shame unredeemed. However, Illica and Mascagni give us an Act 3 — one which taxes modern sensibilities as the libretto takes some dubious turns. Despite her physical trauma, Iris is fished out of the open sewer by some vagrants, her body wrapped in mud-spattered silk. She accepts her fate, welcoming the rising sun which will deliver her soul heavenwards. All the glories of the reprise of the opening choral hymn cannot quite overcome our distaste.

Fuchs and Gilmour do their best to re-establish the stillness of the opening moments: orange lanterns throw warmth into the darkness and the reprised hymn is compelling. The Italianate warmth of Duprels’ final aria is consoling, if one does not linger on the context. And, before her transcendent union with the rising sun, Iris hears the voices of Osaka, Kyoto and of her father. Are they figments of her confused mind? Fuchs places the three men in the cages: perhaps they are all ‘victims’ of their depraved world? Across the stage, red ropes form a net — the sun’s rays, or a spider’s web, trapping all?

Iris was premiered in Rome in November 1898, eight years after Cavalleria Rusticana. It clearly made an impression on Puccini, whose Madame Butterfly appeared six years later. The protagonists of Butterfly may have more substance and their drama more realism, but — despite Illica’s floridity — the mystical ambience of Iris has its own magic when embodied by Mascagni’s orchestral tapestries.

Before the performance, OHP’s new Chairman, Charles Mackay, informed us that Mascagni’s grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter would be in attendance that evening: they must been gratified by the committed performances of all involved. This was an honest and unsentimental production of an opera that deserves to be heard more often, though the weak dramaturgy and questionable ethical slant will problem condemn it to the periphery of the repertoire. And that’s all the more reason not to miss this excellent production.

Claire Seymour

Further performance of Iris will be given on 10, 14, 16 and 8 June at Opera Holland Park:

Cast and production details:

Iris — Anne Sophie Duprels, Osaka — Noah Stewart, Il Cieco — Mikhail Svetlov, Kyoto — James Cleverton, Geisha — Johane Ansell, Un Merciaiuolo — Michael Bradley, Un Cenciaiuolo — Timothy Langston, Alistair Sutherland & Freddie De Tommaso, Dancers — Alex Cuadros Joglar, Joshua Junker & Amelia Townsend; Director — Olivia Fuchs, Conductor — Stuart Stratford, Designer — Soutra Gilmour, Lighting Designer — Mark Jonathan, Choreographer — Charlotte Edmonds, Movement Director — Namiko Gahier-Ogawa, City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus.

Opera Holland Park, London; Tuesday 7th June 2016.

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