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Iris review at Opera Holland Park, London – ‘a courageous staging’

Anne Sophie Duprels in Iris at Opera Holland Park. Photo: Robert Workman Anne Sophie Duprels in Iris at Opera Holland Park. Photo: Robert Workman
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One of Holland Park’s unique selling points is an ongoing commitment to Puccini’s contemporaries that has uncovered some worthwhile rarities. This year’s choice is Mascagni’s Iris, premiered in 1898, six years before Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, which emulated its Japanese setting.

In the case of Iris the location is hardly the point, though Mascagni gives his score a definite and often gorgeous oriental colouring. The opera itself is very different from Butterfly, and in many ways considerably tougher.

The central character is a child who is abducted and placed in a brothel, where the wealthy client Osaka eventually gives up his attempt to persuade her to have sex with him. Believing her to have gone to work willingly in the red light district, her father – simply called the Blind Man – hurls abuse at her. She takes her own life, but as she lies dying there is still one act to go during which the piece moves ever more self-consciously into mystic symbolism, ending in an earth-shatteringly grand chorus in praise of life, love and the sun.

One can imagine disastrous productions of the piece, but there’s a bravery and integrity to Olivia Fuchs’s staging that makes the evening utterly compelling, however gut-wrenching it may be along the way.

Anne Sophie Duprels is an artist who always gives 100 percent, and her Iris is vocally and dramatically unstinting. While all of the male characters in the piece are unutterably vile, Noah Stewart delivers thrilling vocalism as the bullying Osaka while James Cleverton is credibly sinister as the pimp Kyoto and Mikhail Svetlov grandly baleful as Iris’s selfish, uncomprehending father.

Conductor Stuart Stratford demonstrates masterly control of the ambitious score, while the City of London Sinfonia play superbly for him. The Opera Holland Park Chorus, meanwhile, have one of their great evenings.

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A courageous staging of a tough rarity by Mascagni