Mascagni Iris: Scottish Opera in Concert
***** (5 stars)
Earlier this year Scottish Opera’s conductor Stuart Stratford bounced on to the stage and enthusiastically introduced us to Mascagni’s Silvano: now, equally enthusiastically, he invited us to become acquainted with another rarely-performed work by the same composer. At Iris’ first performance in 1898 the opening choral and orchestral Hymn to the Sun was an immediate hit – and yesterday’s performance supported Stuart’s belief that it’s probably the best operatic sunrise there is, powerfully depicting the glory and life-affirming warmth of the sun.
Unlike previous concert performances by Scottish Opera Iris was not semi-staged, though the singers were in costume. Stuart explained that he and the cast had all been struck down with flu at various times in the rehearsal period – and, indeed, the original Iris had had to withdraw after that morning’s dress rehearsal, her place being taken at very short notice by a superb young Australian soprano, Kiandra Howarth, of whom we are surely going to hear much more in future.
The plot is fairly simple – Iris, a beautiful young girl, lives with and cares for her blind father. She is still of an age to play with dolls, and loves the birds and flowers in the garden that surrounds her little cottage. Her beauty attracts the attention of a young nobleman, Osaka. With the assistance of Kyoto, keeper of the local geisha house, and Dhia, one of his geishas, Iris is kidnapped and taken to the geisha house.
Osaka endeavours to seduce Iris, who simply doesn’t understand what he’s getting at. Osaka is quickly bored, and Kyoto decides to display his newest acquisition to the locals, who are astonished at her beauty. Iris’ blind father arrives and, believing his daughter to have deliberately abandoned him and chosen to enter the geisha house, curses her and spits at her. Iris, now completely bewildered and terrified, throws herself from the balcony into the open sewer below the geisha house.
Three days later, Iris’ body is discovered in the sewer by rag-pickers and scavengers, who scatter when they realise she is still alive. Delirious, she imagines she is visited by Osaka, Kyoto and her father, all of whom show no remorse as they bid her farewell. She feels the rays of the rising sun warming her, and sings the ecstatic hymn to the sun as she dies among a field of flowers which spring up around her.
It’s a shocking piece which is all too relevant today. I feel it could well be re-named Così fan tutti – All men are thus – as it highlights the heartless treatment of women as sex toys, objects to be bought and sold, used, and abandoned without a thought. There is no point at which the men demonstrate any remorse for their behaviour, or the slightest understanding of their complicity in her death – Osaka says he’s going to look elsewhere now, Kyoto sees her as the victim of her own beauty, and her father berates her because now there’s no-one to see to his comfort. In the equivalent of a musical shrug all three sing Così la vita; addìo / vo [such is life; goodbye / I’m off ]…
The music is superb, with many original and unusual instrumental combinations and sonorities. I’m glad Stuart Stratford pointed out many things to listen out for – the most unusual being the leader of the orchestra’s positioning of a coffee cup on the body of his violin at the beginning of act three, producing a weird buzzing sound to lead us into the darkness of the sewer in which Iris’ broken body lies.
The singing was magnificent, with the greatest honours going to Kiandra Howarth whose radiant innocence and utter belief in the power of the sun god’s son Jor was in stark contrast to the duplicitous and self-absorbed Osaka of Ric Furman and Roland Wood’s corrupt and heartless Kyoto. Charlie Drummond’s Geisha was an aural delight, and I loved her fabulously embroidered rose-coloured kimono! James Creswell’s sonorous and powerful bass gave full weight to Iris’ blind father, while Aled Hall made the most of his few moments in the spotlight as he celebrated the moon’s light in act three. Arthur Bruce and Fraser Simpson sang their wee parts from among the chorus, who were major players in the drama, while above, around, and throughout the whole performance the brilliant Scottish Opera Orchestra created a unique and unforgettable sound world in which a heartbreaking but all too contemporary tragedy was played out.
Yet again Scottish Opera have brought a neglected masterpiece to vibrant life – we can but hope that there will be a repeat performance before too long.
Mascagni Iris: Scottish Opera in Concert, City Halls, Glasgow, RUN ENDED