For some time now Opera Holland Park has maintained a reputation for unearthing operas from the verismo period that, for most opera audiences, remain little more than footnotes in books or, if one is lucky, experienced through dusty old live recordings from Italian Radio or regional opera houses. Recent miraculous re-births have included Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna and Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re. Wexford, following OHP’s cue, even dared to dust off Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff last summer. The same composer’s Iris is not quite at that height or depth of obscurity, as it has been recorded several times, including a studio recording with Tokody, Domingo and Giaotti and a live one with Dessi, Cura and Ghiaurov. Although the work has yet to re-establish any foothold in the major opera houses, even in Italy, this is the second production at Holland Park.
Although familiar with the work from recordings, this is the first time I have experienced it live and I find myself reacting in a curiously conflicted manner. One the one hand, one has to admit that this is probably, overall, Mascagni’s greatest score – containing some absolutely thrilling pages for both soloists and chorus. The opening and closing choral hymns to the renewing sun are hair-raisingly gorgeous and were performed with seat-pinning fervour by the OHP chorus. The chorus, not always the company’s trump card in the early years, are now of a universally high quality with the tenor line being particularly strong.
On the other hand, the story plumbs levels of misogynistic cruelty unthought of, even in Butterfly or Turandot. The male characters are, without exception, wholly unsympathetic and vile in their behaviour. The unfortunate teenage heroine is treated with callous disregard by the nobleman, Osaka, and then abused with monstrous cruelty by her would-be pimp, Kyoto. Finally, when it seems nothing could possibly exceed her suffering, she is cursed and pelted with mud by her selfish old father. Hardly surprising, then, that she throws herself into a deep sewer to escape her tormentors. Death was obviously a preferable fate to living in a world where she is a mere commodity or a crutch for old age. But even then Mascagni and Illica haven’t finished with her. Instead of suffering a quick, heroic death in the manner of Liù or Butterfly she is forced to endure the indignity of being stripped by sewer scavengers, visions of the men involved in her ruin actually attempting to justify their actions and, finally, a protracted death/transfiguration as she is embraced by the rising sun.
The fact that all these horrors are set to the most orgasmically beautiful and lush music, if anything, makes the events even more shocking and disturbing; almost as if we are made complicit in Iris’ fate, as we revel in the sensual musical gratification. Premiered eight years after Cavalleria rusticana, the work inhabits a very different and more complex soundworld than Mascagni’s first, and only lasting, mainstream hit. The fact that Iris, in many ways a better work, has not maintained a foothold in the repertoire must be blamed on the subject matter. Puccini’s legendary sadism towards his female characters seems mild in contrast.
Olivia Fuchs wisely avoided picturesque japonaiserie to sugar the bitter pill and sets the opera in a non-specific country in near present day. However, with the revolting Richard Huckle case still fresh in the audience minds, this made the attempted seduction of the child-like Iris all the more uncomfortable to watch. Coupled with the fact that Anne Sophie Duprels is one of the few singers of my experience who could both convincingly portray a naïve, pubescent girl and still triumphantly sing the punishing role and I can’t remember being so disturbed by a scene in a long time.
Fuchs’ production, for the most part, successfully mixes the stylised and the shockingly realistic. She never lets the audience off the hook – the scene in which the near naked Iris is forced into a series of seductive poses in front of the salivating males of the Yoshiwara district is so unpleasant that one wants to look away, yet is compelled to go on watching. Occasionally the long entrances and exits necessitated by the OHP stage lessen the impact or distract, but this is a confident and very hard-hitting production of a problematic work.
As well as the epic choral music, Mascagni provides four really meaty roles for his principals. It would be hard to imagine anyone singing the title role better than Duprels. She has the perfect combination of sweetness and spinto power to ride the surges of the huge orchestra. She is apparently tireless, traversing the long central act without strain and still keeping plenty in reserve for the transfigurative finale. Coupled with her tiny stature and heartbreaking acting this is a performance that deserves to receive the highest praise. Right from her opening appearance recounting her nightmare it is obvious that this butterfly will be broken on the wheel of a male-dominated society.
Though a feckless seducer, Osaka is inevitably given pages of glorious tenor music. Noah Stewart is shaping into a formidable performer and he gave full value to the often cruelly high lying music. He could afford to relax into the famous serenade but the long seduction scene and his belated remorse were all sung with ardour and tonal splendour. It doesn’t do any harm that he is tall, handsome and boasting the physique of a male model. His stripping to the waist elicited several appreciative murmurs around me. And, given the appalling objectification of the central female character, a modicum of balance should be appreciated!
James Cleverton may not be the Rigoletto-in-waiting that Mascagni probably envisaged for the role of Osaka but his high-lying baritone never gets lost in the thick orchestration and he easily dominated the big scene in which he displays poor Iris to the Yoshiwara street. I enjoyed the careful calibration of his acting as the character initially appears an almost jolly panderer and only reveals his black-hearted brutality in stages.
Mikhail Svetlov, a triumphant Archibaldo in the Montemezzi last season, had less to get to get his teeth into as Il Cieco, as the character vanishes for most of Act II. However, he made the most of both the musical and dramatic opportunities offered – painting a vivid portrait of a vulnerable but wholly selfish father. His cursing of his daughter at the climax of Act II was powerfully voiced and utterly sickening.
Johane Ansell made much of limited opportunities in the role of an unnamed Geisha, vividly depicting a sympathetic character forced into evil and wholly in thrall to her employer. In the roles of first, second and third ragpicker Timothy Langston, Alistair Sutherland and Freddie Tommaso all made their mark.
Stuart Stratford demonstrated his complete mastery of the wonderful score in a reading that was both richly lush and stirring. He ensured that the singers remained audible even at the most thickly scored moments. Scottish Opera is very lucky to have him. The City of London Sinfonia, after some slightly wiry string playing in the opening pages, played with thrilling power and sensitivity.
I have to report that there was a strange sound anomaly, apparently due to the misrouting of the backstage relay, in the opening act which gave the impression of the singers being amplified in the manner of a West End musical. Fortunately this was rectified for the second half of the evening and this was a minor fault given the glorious overall success.
It’s rare that so soon after seeing a work I feel such a strong desire to revisit it. But this production, despite the grim, uncomfortable subject matter, is an absolute winner. Wholeheartedly recommended.
(Photos : Robert Workman)