Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Richly imaginative - Mascagni's Iris opens Opera Holland Park's 21st season

 Anne Sophie Duprels as Iris and Noah Stewart as Osaka in  Iris  at Opera Holland Park  2016. Photo Robert Workman
 Anne Sophie Duprels as Iris and Noah Stewart as Osaka in Iris at Opera Holland Park 2016. Photo Robert Workman
Mascagni Iris; Anne Sophie Duprels, Noah Stewart, Mihkail Svetlov, James Cleverton, dir: Olivia Fuchs, cond: Stuart Stratford;
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 7 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Superb outing for Mascagni's richly imaginative and rarely performed score.

The 21st Opera Holland Park season opened with a real rarity, the other late 19th century Japanese-themed Italian opera, Mascagni's Iris. Olivia Fuchs directed a new production, designed by Soutra Gilmour, with lighting by Mark Jonathan; Namiko Gahier-Ogawa was the movement director with Charlotte Edmonds as the choreographer. Anne Sophie Duprels sang the title role, with Noah Stewart as Osaka, Mikhail Svetlov as Il Cieco and James Cleverton as Kyoto. Stuart Stratford conducted, with the City of London Sinfonia in the pit.

Iris was premiered in 1898, eight years after Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and six years before Puccini's Madama Butterfly, with a libretto by Luigi Illica. The opera was popular in Italy during Mascagni's life-time. It produced by Opera Holland Park in 1997 and 1998, and has probably not been staged in London since.

Iris is very much a work in tension, between the lusciously rich score and the pain & child prostitution in the story, between the light of the hymn to the sun and the dark of the abyss in the last act, between the quasi-symbolist libretto and the giovane scuola music with its declamatory vocal lines, strong harmonies and intense passions. The biggest problem for any staging is that Luigi Illica's libretto seems too intent on flirting with symbolism (Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande premiered in 1893) and simply fails to create sufficient strongly dramatic characters. There are plenty of interesting situations, and you can sense Illica and Mascagni being deliberately experimental (Mascagni was certainly not a composer who tried to re-write his biggest hit, Cavalleria Rusticana, for the rest of his career). But the double-act of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, combined with Puccini's strong sense of the dramatic, mean that Madame Butterfly whilst far less experimental, is far stronger in terms of the dramaturgy.

 The Opera Holland Park Chorus in  Iris  at Opera Holland Park 2016. Photo Robert  Workman
 The Opera Holland Park Chorus in  Iris at Opera Holland Park 2016. Photo Robert  Workman
Opera Holland Park did the opera proud, and under Stuart Stratford's careful yet loving direction the City of London Sinfonia produced gorgeous streams of sound from beginning to end, without ever overwhelming the singers (fatally easy in performances of big dramatic scores in this theatre). It uses a large orchestra, triple woodwind and enough percussion that the tam tams had their own separate hut outside the main arena!

The Opera Holland Park Chorus, chorus master Nicholas Jenkins, were equally on form. They get to sing one of the opera's biggest hits, the hymn to the sun which opens and closes the piece; both here and elsewhere they impressed with the combination of discipline and passion which they brought to the piece and their singing of the opera's final apotheosis really did bring the house down.
The plot is relatively straightforward, the young girl Iris (Anne Sophie Duprels) lives with her blind, elderly father, Il Cieco (Mikhail Svetlov) and the opera opens with her dreaming of monsters before the warmth of the sun lightens things. She is lusted after by Osaka (Noah Stewart) and with the brothel-keeper Kyoto (James Cleverton) they put on a puppet show about the Sun (voiced by Osaka) and the death of a geisha (Johane Ansell). This so entrances Iris she is easily captured, but when her father discovers her absence his is conned into believing she has gone willingly. Act two is in the brothel, Osaka tries to seduce Iris but fails, she refuses his blandishments and gifts and simply wishes for her house and her garden. As Osaka leaves in disgust, Kyoto makes money by exhibiting Iris. Osaka returns, still infatuated and offering any amount of money, but Iris' father appears and curses her. Iris commits suicide. At this point the opera was often ended, but the third act takes place in the sewers where Iris' body has been dumped. Not quite dead, she questions her existence and has visions of Osaka, Kyoto and her father before dying as the sun rises.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Iris in  Iris  at Opera Holland Park 2016. Photo Robert Workman
Anne Sophie Duprels as Iris in Iris at Opera Holland Park 2016. Photo Robert Workman
Fuchs' production moved fluidly between the abstract and the concrete. Gilmour's set consisted of three 'cages' which could also be rooms, surrounded by stylised water lilies and stepping stones; this created a sense of abstract beauty as well as providing a series of fascinating yet functional spaces for the drama. The costumes were loosely 1940s (at least the suits for Osaka and Kyoto were). The chorus were dressed in an elegantly stylised Oriental way, in shades of indigo, which looked stunning and made a superb image when the chorus was massed on stage. The three dancers (Alex Cuadros Joglar, Joshua Junker and Amelia Townsend) were in equally stylised black with no attempt to create a geisha image.

The only fully developed character is Iris, and Anne Sophie Duprels was on superb form. She has quite a slight frame so was perfectly believable as a young girl, especially as she brought a lovely sense of naivety and wonder to the role without us ever feeling this was annoying overdone. Instead she and Fuchs created an entirely believable character. But this has combined with a real sense of power, focus and beauty in Duprels voice, she really seems to have found form. Mascagni's music was sung with the combination of strength and suppleness which it requires; great beauty of line and tone, yet riding the orchestra with ease. She made the last act really powerful and poignant, making it seem necessary rather than a strange add on.

Noah Stewart did his best with Osaka. We do not see nearly enough of Stewart in London (his most recent appearances include ENO's disappointing The Indian Queen). His Osaka was personable and almost likeable, and there was a sense that at the end of Act Two, when Osaka returned he really was in love (one of the opera's many dramatic loose ends). He looks good without his shirt too. I did worry that his tone was a little unvarying, but this may be Mascagni's fault, and Stewart made the role seem heroically effortless. He was delightful in the Act One serenade, part of the puppet show, and during the long seduction scene in Act Two impressed with the long streams of gorgeous sound which he made, firm of line and rich of tone.

James Cleverton (better known at Opera Holland Park as the White Rabbit in Will Todd's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) was a characterful Kyoto. As a character, Kyoto is a rather unsavoury moneymaking pander, and Cleverton combined this with a sophisticated worldliness. I do hope we get to see him in something more substantial soon. Mikhail Svetlov brought a secure sense of personality and dramatic tone to Iris' father, Il Cieco. It is not a huge role, but very important and Svetlov sang with an attractive darkness of voice and a clear feeling for who the character was.

The smaller roles were all strongly taken. Johane Ansell was a lovely geisha, whilst chorus members Michael Bradley, Timoth Langston, Alistair Sutherland and Freddie De Tommaso had stand-out roles.

Namiko Gahier-Ogawa provided some highly effective, and quite abstract, movement for the chorus in the opening and closing scenes and ensured that the whole always looked as good as it sounded. Whilst Charlotte Edmonds, the first participant on the Royal Ballet Young Choreographer Programme created some highly expressive and rather dramatic choreography for the three dancers (Alex Cuadros Joglar, Joshua Junker and Amelia Townsend).

Mascagni's Iris will never be regular opera house fare, but this intelligent production showed that with the right performers the piece can make a strong impression, particularly with the richly imaginative score. It was good that Mascgani's grand-daughter and great-grand-daughters were in the audience to hear this striking performance. The great virtue of Olivia Fuchs' production was that it did not try to make the piece into something it wasn't, she embraced the work fully and with Anne Sophie Duprels created a remarkable account of the title role. Iris runs in repertory at Opera Holland Park until June 18.

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