Scottish Opera, under the musical direction of today’s conductor Stuart Stratford, have been exploring the lesser known works of Italian composer Pietro Mascagni, who became famous as the composer of Cavelleria Rusticana. Today they present a concert performance of a rarely performed work, Iris. The opera tells the tale of a poor Japanese girl, who is trapped into prostitution and subsequently commits suicide. The story has shades of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly but, as Stratford says in an introductory talk, is much more brutal. He suggests that this brutality may explain the opera’s lack of success. However, in her programme notes, director Roxanna Haines also reminds us that human trafficking for prostitution is still a problem today. The real question is whether the music makes it worthy of performance today, or is there a musical reason for its neglect?
The City Halls podium is crowded, with a very full Scottish Opera orchestra and a big Scottish Opera Chorus, with chairs for the opera’s principal characters placed in front. This is a static concert performance rather than a semi-staged one, with the singers acting across the stage, as they have done in the past at the Theatre Royal. Stratford explains in his pre-concert talk that the singers are singing from scores, not least because rehearsals had been limited owing to colds and flu. Indeed, the part of Iris has been substituted at two days notice. Helena Dix, the very experienced Australian soprano, has fallen ill and been replaced by young Australian soprano, Kiandra Howarth. Fortunately, she is a more than adequate substitute – an operatic star for the future.
Iris opens with a wonderful double bass solo which is picked up first by the rest of the strings and then by the brass, including a section of brass above the orchestra on an upper balcony. Finally, the big Scottish Opera Chorus join in to welcome the sun. It makes a splendid opening to the opera. Sadly, the opera that follows doesn’t quite live up to its glorious opening, which may explain its neglect since its debut in 1898. There are some good arias for James Cresswell, the bass singing the blind father of Iris, and for Roland Wood, the baritone singing Kyoto, the keeper of the geisha house. The tenor Ric Furman, singing Osaka, the young lord trafficking Iris, is less convincing.
However, the star of the afternoon is undoubtedly the late substitute, Kiandra Howarth. Still young, she has been winning singing competitions all over the world, was a Young Artist at Covent Garden and is now making a name for herself across Europe. Her voice is powerful, yet lyrical, and she dominates the stage with her interpretation of Iris. The opera concludes with another great musical climax, with a return to the opening theme of The Hymn to the Sun.
This is the first performance of Iris in Scotland, and Scottish Opera are to be congratulated for bringing it to our notice. However, Puccini lovers don’t have to fear. Iris doesn’t supplant Madame Butterfly in operatic affections.