City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

THE aim of Scottish Opera’s Music Director Stuart Stratford to bring Mascagni’s neglected 1898 Japan-set opera Iris to Scotland, having conducted it at his previous job in London’s Holland Park, turned out to be fraught with problems. Originally advertised as featuring the company’s recent triumphant Tosca, Natalya Romaniw, in the title role, she withdrew before her long run of performances in the Puccini, and the part was enthusiastically taken on by Australian soprano Helena Dix. Rehearsals were afflicted by illness across the cast, and at the eleventh hour Dix was forced to call off, replaced by her countrywoman, and Scottish Opera debutante, Kiandra Howarth. That in turn led to the abandonment of the “semi-staging” as envisaged by staff director Roxana Haines in favour of a straightforward concert performance in which all that survived of the theatricality was the kimonos.

With company favourite Roland Wood, as geisha-house keeper Kyoto, clearly still less than entirely well, and Howarth’s requirement of the score bringing the music-stands back on stage for all, the focus was firmly on the music, and fortunately the work is more than up to that scrutiny.

Hugely popular in its day, Iris is full of musical highlights. The big stuff comes from the orchestra, with offstage brass, and the chorus, and in particular the evocation of dawn at beginning and end: the sun plays an important symbolic and mystical role in Luigi Illica’s libretto. But there are smaller delights too, with orchestra leader Anthony Moffat, first bass Peter Fry and guest principal cello Tom Rathbone all having crucial solos. Among the singers, tenor Ric Furman, as lustful, predatory Osaka, had a fine, funny, early aria in praise of his own voice, James Creswell was terrifically full-toned as the blind father of the naive Iris, and Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Charlie Drummond made a very characterful impression as geisha Dhia in the first act play-within-a-play and the wordless opening to Act 2.

Most credit must go to Kiandra Howarth though, whose voice, with its old-fashioned vibrato, was as strong in her mezzo range as at the top, and who brought to life the central character in a difficult tale that is ultimately all about the “otherness” of the Orient that was so much in vogue at the “art nouveau” time in which Mascagni was writing.