Pietro Mascagni: Iris

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

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
, 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

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

Claire Seymour

Further performance of Iris will be given on 10, 14, 16 and
8 June at Opera Holland Park: http://www.operahollandpark.com/our-2016-season/

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.

image_description=Iris by Opera Holland Park
product_title=Pietro Mascagni: Iris
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Iris by Opera Holland Park