The opera was first performed in 1898 and set in Japan. It pre-dates Puccini’s ever-popular Madam Butterfly by six years. The opera is a tale of abduction and exploitation of a young teenager but, unlike Madam Butterfly, there is no redeeming love to mitigate what is in fact a squalid little story. On the contrary it was intended as a commentary on human behaviour.
The opening is clearly influenced by Wagner and leads to a chorus who present a quasi-pantheistic worldview in which nature is paramount. The opera has a lavish score but here’s the rub. The narrative, which is singularly lacking in any humanity, is supported by late Romantic music that does not reflect the full emotional range of the narrative. It is a truly horrible scene – but brilliantly brought off – when Osaka tries to seduce the awkward, exceptionally naïve Iris and, since the sexual grooming of girls is not an issue far away from the public mind, it therefore has a conspicuous contemporaneity. But the music does not do justice to the scene. And the Wagnerian leitmotifs such as they are quite simply do not have the gravitas to match their subject. By contrast think of the resonant three-note Fate motive in The Ring as one example. There is another major weakness with the narrative. The structure of the opera is awkward. At the end of the second act, following the attempted seduction scene, where the dramatic tension is at its greatest, we see Iris leap to her death. But a final act follows in which her final demise is interrupted by the activities of scavengers and the reflections of the three main male characters who have been responsible for her sordid end. The opera ends with the sun lighting her way to heaven with the text, ‘Come, flower!’.
Whilst having these misgivings, it also true to say that the performance of this work was terrific. All main leads were outstanding. Anne Sophie Duprels as Iris, a regular at Holland Park, brings an extraordinary expressive range to her fabulous voice. And then there was Mikhail Svetlov as the blind father and James Cleverton as Kyoto who were also excellent.
And so to the tenor. We at Ginger Wig had the pleasure of meeting Noah Stewart in 2012 in Newcastle when he was Pinkerton opposite Ann Sophie in Opera North’s Madam Butterfly and it was we who said he must come to Holland Park! What more can we say? His acting and singing were outstanding and we look forward to seeing him again at Holland Park.
This is not a great opera but it is worth seeing. Its moral message sets it apart from its time. A fabulous cast made it a very interesting evening.