Iris, Opera Holland Park, OHP, June 2016

Opera Holland Park staged Mascagni’s little-known Iris during their second season in 1997, but this production by Olivia Fuchs is entirely new.

Iris and would-be lover Osaka, all images OHP/ Robert Workman

Iris and would-be lover Osaka, all images OHP/ Robert Workman

The opera itself premiered in 1898, eight years after Cavalleria Rusicana, and Mascagni’s librettist for this new work suggested a tragedy set in Japan, in keeping with a vogue for exotic subjects. The story that Luigi Illica fashioned focuses on a simple girl named Iris, whose unaffected beauty inspires the desire of a rake named Osaka, and his friend Kyoto owner of a Geisha house. Under cover of a play that entrances her and distracts the local people they abduct her from her beloved blind father to the Geisha house, ready for Osaka’s caresses. When he gets bored with her protestations and gives up, Kyoto installs her as a beauty to be ogled by strangers, where her father finds her and curses her. After attempting to kill herself, her body is found by rag-pickers searching the sewers at night, and not yet dead she sings of the comforting warmth of the sun that helps flowers to bloom in fields and heaven.

Rays of the sun overlooking her corpse

Rays of the sun overlooking the body of Iris

Mascagni’s opera with its powerfully dramatic music might have held a stronger place in the repertoire had it not inspired Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, also written by Illica but in collaboration with Giacosa to say nothing of input by Puccini himself. Unfortunately Illica’s heroine in this opera never rises to the great passion with which the music invests her, and the story does not quite justify the portentous symbolism at the end, so it remains a neglected piece. But the music is built on a grand scale, starting almost imperceptibly with a single double bass before Mascagni’s colourful instrumentation for the orchestra helps it swell with emotional power, providing huge scope for the magnificent chorus.

As Iris herself, Anne Sophie Duprels evinces a child-like simplicity and sings with a passion matching the music, compellingly conducted by Stuart Stratford with the wonderful City of London Sinfonia. The bold tenor of Noah Stewart as Osaka suited his role as a wealthy rake who can usually get what he wants, and James Cleverton sang a firm and controlled Kyoto. As Iris’s father, Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov was outstanding, and Johane Ansell sang an excellent Geisha.

Designs by Soutra Gilmour are simple and effective, as is Mark Jonathan’s lighting, and Olivia Fuchs’s staging well suits this rather shocking story.

Performances continue on various dates until June 18 — for details click here.

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