The operas of Pietro Mascagni have enjoyed a revival in recent years at the festivals of Britain and Ireland. Alongside the inevitable productions of Cavalleria Rusticana, Opera Holland Park has produced L’Amico Fritz (1891) and Zanetto (1896), while last year’s Wexford Festival ambitiously mounted Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895), the work Mascagni considered his greatest achievement. This summer, Holland Park returned to his Japanese opera, Iris, which it first produced in 1997. The influence of Japanese art on European culture in the 1890s (conspicuous in the paintings of James McNeill Whistler and in Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème) found its way into musical works as diverse as Saint Saens’ La Princesse Jaune (1872) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885). Premiered in Rome on 22 November 1898, Iris was an instant success (Enrico Caruso took over the tenor role when the opera was performed in La Scala, Milan the following January). Like most of Mascagni’s ‘other’ works, however, the success did not endure, and as an operatic expression of the contemporary taste for Japanese orientalism, Iris was soon eclipsed by Puccini’s Madama Butterly (1904).
Puccini himself drew attention to the major defect of Iris, which lies not in Mascagni’s music but the story’s lack of action, to which might be added a lack of complexity or humanity to the characterisation. On the surface the work is a sordid tale of sexual exploitation, but the music and libretto pit experience and corruption against innocence and wonder. The thin plot is book-ended by a rapturous hymn to the sun, which begins portentously with a double bass before rising and swelling into an ecstatic chorus, superbly performed here by the Holland Park ensemble. Iris is an ingenuous young girl who lives alone with her blind father, lovingly tending to the flowers in her garden, clutching her rag doll, and blissfully singing homages to her protector the Sun. She is abducted by Osaka, a young nobleman, and Kyoto, owner of a geisha in the Yoshiwara (the red-light district of the city). Initially Osaka is interested in Iris only for sex, but she resists his advances and he gives up in disgust. He is drawn back to her when Kyoto – whose only interest is in his ‘merchandise’ (‘mia merche’) – parades her in front of an assembled horde of lusting locals. Other aspects of the plot – the denunciation of Iris by her father who thinks she has willingly embraced prostitution, and Iris’s suicidal plunge into a sewer (though in the Holland Park production she takes the knife option) – are pure melodrama.
Dramatically, the work turns on the contrasts of sordid realism and sentimental fairy tale. The play of light and dark is captured at the end when the dying Iris is fished out of the sewer by scavengers and ostensibly saved by the Sun God, while the voices of Osaka, Kyoto and her father confess their guilt. Olivia Fuchs’s staging brought out these contrasts well, striking the right amount of pathos at the close without allowing sentiment to override our essential disgust at the appalling fate of the central character. Three large bamboo cages served as protecting and imprisoning symbols of Iris’s fate, while the water lilies and night candles which grace the stage in the opening scene are replaced at the end by the dank emptiness of the sewer. Holland Park’s set designs suggest budgetary constraints, but here the simplicity and sparseness served the drama well.
The title role calls for a particular kind of vocal purity. Unlike Puccini’s Butterfly, Iris barely develops a will of her own and it is all too easy to sentimentalise a character who, in the throes of imminent passion, longs only for her little garden and its babbling brook. Anne Sophie Duprels sang with as much natural innocence in the voice as she could muster and when confronted by her seducer in the brothel managed to combine sexual naivety with enough vocal forcefulness to cut through Mascagni’s heavily eroticised orchestral writing. Alongside her, Noah Stewart as Osaka cut a convincingly sexually voracious figure. If a little taxed by the high tessitura of the Act 1 serenade (the best known melody in the work), he produced some high-octane tenor singing in the failed seduction scene. He and Kyoto (well sung by the baritone James Cleverton) were dressed in 1940s suits and struck a suavely sinister pose in their acting. Mikhail Svetlov was gravely sonorous as Iris’s blind father. Stuart Stratford, highly experienced in this repertoire, conducted with a sure control of pace and dynamics.
Holland Park’s other offerings this year were more familiar. In addition to La Cenerentola, The Queen of Spades and Die Fledermaus, there was a Bohème which impressed some critics but which I found ill-conceived. Puccini’s perennial tear-jerker rarely responds well to relocation in time and place, and Stephen Barlow’s decision to backdate the action to evoke the Shakespearan theatre robbed the work of its essential warmth and pathos. The garret was set up as a stage-within-a-stage with shaking pillars and a cardboard fire. Benoit was kitted out as Falstaff, Musetta as Queen Elizabeth, while Rodolfo’s dress suggested the poet was meant to be Shakespeare himself. Without a door to knock, there was no room for Mimi to fall innocently into Rodolfo’s life in Act 1, and no touch of feigned innocence when he openly pocketed her key in front of her during his aria. It was spirited at times, but rarely moving (perhaps that was the point). The musical qualities offered some compensation. Vocally the honours went to the two sopranos – Anna Patalong lyrically beautiful as Mimi, and Elin Pritchard feisty and characterful as Musetta. Matthew Waldron conducted with sensitivity and coped well with a rhythmically rebellious Rodolfo.
The benefits of playing an opera straight – especially one by Puccini, whose musical architecture is often deliberately evocative of the location of his dramas – was demonstrated by Peter Relton’s revival of Stephen Medcalf’s production of La Fanciulla del West at Grange Park. Set, costumes, and stage movement all evoke the Wild West of the mid-nineteenth-century, most strikingly in the long first act where the members of the superb Grange Park ensemble successfully captured the violence and vulnerability of the masculine world of the gold diggers. The travelling minstrel’s nostalgic lament for home (smoothly sung by Thomas Humphreys) was arresting in its simplicity. As the ‘fanciulla’ herself, Claire Rutter scaled the perilous heights of Minnie’s music with easy confidence and made this gun-toting heroine a good deal more feminine than usual, offering a winningly gentle attack on many of the exposed high Cs. As the bandit Ramerrez, Lorenzo Decaro phrased handsomely in a voice that was robust and heroic, if a little muscular at the top of the range. Stephen Gadd made the Sherriff Jack Rance a commanding figure and sang with strong legato. Stephen Barlow drew luscious sounds from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in what is one of Puccini’s most symphonic scores.
2016 is GPO’s last season at The Grange. The company has been granted a 99-year lease to produce opera at its new home in the Theatre in the Wood (under construction) at West Horsley Place in Surrey. Enthusiastic hopes for the future swept aside memories of the past in pre-performance announcements. Nevertheless, GPO has drawn the curtain on its Hampshire residency in grand style with concert performances of Tristan und Isolde, alongside less grand (but apparently warmly received) performances of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, and a production of Verdi’s supreme achievement in grand opera (possibly in all opera) Don Carlo. Wisely, in view of the demands on length and spectacle, GPO opted not for the original five-act version of Don Carlos, which Verdi composed for the Opéra in Paris in 1867, but the compressed four-act version he rewrote fifteen years later with Aida behind him and Otello in preparation. This Don Carlo, performed at La Scala in 1884 in an Italian translation (Verdi composed and revised the work in French), may be structurally less satisfactory than the five-act version and may smear the finer subtleties of Verdi’s composition for the French language, but it has its place, and the GPO production made a strong case for its artistic importance, notwithstanding a controversial change to the ending.
The production, directed by Jo Davies, emphasised the opera’s darkness. The set design by Leslie Charteris, with two towering walls narrowing the stage, created a claustrophobic atmosphere, while the austere black costumes, candles and flames that filled the monastery and the King’s private study typified the omnipresent shadowing gloom. In the great spectacle of the ‘auto-da-fé’ scene, the ceremonial burning of heretics at the stake, the direction was brutally realistic. The snarling chorus, accenting the downward runs of the music, were joined by Ku Klux Klan figures as the flames rose above a towering cross at the back of the stage. In this vision there was little room for Verdi’s musical gesture of salvation (derived from his hatred of the institutional power of the Church). The celestial voice which welcomes the souls of the heretics to Heaven was barely audible and passed almost unnoticed as a stray child was hurled onto the pyre. Most controversially, Davies’s production altered the ending so that Carlo is not drawn into the tomb by the ghost of Charles V (the mysterious monk of Act 1) but fatally stabbed by Philip, after which Elisabetta’s throat was cut by the Grand Inquisitor. It was a radical deviation, and not likely to please traditionalists, but it is arguably more consistent with the tone of the opera’s final situation. The redemptive ending is, in fact, an invention of Verdi’s librettists. In Friedrich Schiller’s play, upon which the opera is based, Carlos is handed over to the Grand Inquisitor with an instruction that he do his duty. It could be argued that this production restored the spirit of Schiller. After all, the King has demanded ‘un doppio sacrificio’ and the Inquisitor has assured him that the Holy Office will do its duty; it was at least consistent with Davies’s dark interpretation that there should be no salvation for Carlo and Elisabetta.
The cast was mostly impressive. As Don Carlo, Stefano Secco sang fervently in a voice that didn’t quite bloom at the top. He was at his freest in the glorious final duet with Elisabetta. The queen herself was disappointingly sung by Virginia Tola. Her Act 2 aria was silken in tone but the vocal characterisation was elsewhere pallid, and in the great final act scene, when Elisabetta finally pours out her emotions, the voice became bottled up at forte and threadbare at pianissimo. The strongest purely vocal performance came from David Stout as Rodrigo, Marchese di Posa, who sang with the requisite bite for Verdi and phrased nobly throughout. There was a beautiful lightening of the voice at the end of the great scene with Philip, when Posa’s idealism momentarily breaks down the King’s dark political heart, but oddly little tonal variation either side of the mortal wounding in the double aria that constitutes the moving death scene. Princess Eboli was sung by Ruxandre Dunose, opulent and flexible throughout. The very top notes of ‘O don fatale’ were not absolutely securely focused but the delivery was impassioned and drew the biggest applause of the evening. Verdi himself considered the role of Philip the most important in the opera. Clive Bayley may not have the most Italianate tone, and there were some moments of over-accentuation, but he was appropriately black-voiced with a good body of sound and successfully captured the duality at the heart of Philip’s character as political tyrant and lonely monarch. Best of all, however, was Alistair Miles as a terrifyingly dangerous Grand Inquisitor breaking the core of the King’s fragile conscience. Once again, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianluca Marcianò, played superbly (a notably haunting performance by the solo cello at the start of Act 3) and the scaled down chorus was again excellent.
At Wormsley, Garsington Opera’s showpiece this year was Mozart’s Idomeneo. In addition to Eugene Onegin and a dance adaptation of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation in collaboration with the Rambert School, there was also a new production of Rossini’s early comedy L’Italiana in Algeri, imaginatively conceived by director Will Tuckett. George Souglides’s spectacular set – a giant white staircase supported by gold pillars – was full-on Liberace kitsch, while the velvet stools, water fountain, and domed archway suitably evoked the palace of the Bey of Algiers. There was a delightfully cartoon-like quality to the comedy that was never overdone. Mustafa, for once, was played not as a buffoon but as a youthful, nasty despot, which made his conquering by the Italian girl, Isabella, all the more comically satisfying. Among the largely excellent cast, Riccardo Novaro, a late replacement as Taddeo, gave an object lesson in how to act with the voice. As Mustafa, Quirin de Lang’s rather cavernous baritone lacked a degree of juice and fluidity for what is really a bass role but he acted superbly. As Lindoro, the small-voiced tenor Luciano Botelho displayed an accomplished coloratura technique but a perilously thin tone. He was more effective in the passagework and ensembles than the exposed Act 1 aria. Isabella herself, costumed in the golden age of Hollywood, was sung and characterised superbly by the mezzo Ezgi Kutlu. With a well-focused lower register and ample power at the top, she coped admirably with the florid music and dominated the stage. L’Italiana is a work of many set numbers, but its youthful sparkle (it was composed in only twenty-seven days when Rossini was just twenty-one) lies in the manic ensembles, choreographed here to perfection. The cast – clearly well-rehearsed – brought out the musical variation well, notably in the chaotic scene that closes the first act when the characters stammer their confusion in different tonal exclamations. The best all-round performance I witnessed at this year’s summer festivals, however, was Garsington’s Idomeneo. The opera was cut to a more manageable length, close in text to the 1951 Glyndebourne production, but with a mezzo-soprano Idamante. Regrettably, both of Arbace’s arias were omitted. While these do little to advance the action, they are beautiful and the ear longs for them. Tim Albery’s production, with sets designed by Hannah Clark, struck a balance between the abstract and the concrete, allowing the performance to throw out loose connections between the mythical and the real without imposing a rigid concept which would have made the fabulous implausible. The set was dominated by two large ship containers, symbolic of romance and heroism run aground, and suggestive of the environmental and migration crises of our time. The costumes brought to mind the world of Peter Grimes, a reminder that obsessions and neuroses have always accompanied tales of the sea. One container was collapsed into the sand, out of which emerged the Trojan prisoners in Act 1 (greeted with blankets and mugs of tea) and into which were dumped the bin bags in Act 3 containing the victims of the ‘sea monster’, which in this production was figured as a plague. The interior of the other container opened out to present first Ilia’s bedroom and then Idomeneo’s throne room, nicely reflective of the imprisonment of both characters – Ilia literally a captured Trojan, Idomeneo tormented by his own impetuous vow to sacrifice the first person he meets on reaching land (who turns out to be his son Idamante).
Once past some directionless moments in the overture, the production was sure-footed throughout. When the sea monster visited its plague on Crete, causing the members of the chorus to vomit blue blood, the floor of the stage opened up to create a channel through which the plague metaphorically ran. In Act 3 the ‘Voice’ (projected here as the God Neptune) which finally releases Idomeneo from his vow, strode through the channel covered with oil in a black leather coat. This small but chilling part was sung, imposingly, by the bass Nicholas Masters in a suitably dark voice.
Toby Spence gave an authoritative performance as Idomeneo. Searching for force and darkness in the vocal line, his recitatives were well-pointed and the arias delivered with a strong pulse, although the very top notes of the immensely challenging ‘Fuor del mar’, with its fiendishly difficult coloratura, were a little smudged. There was considerable artistry in his final scene when, having had the burden of kingship and his self-imposed vow lifted by the Gods, he deployed a softer head voice, capturing the return of peace and tranquillity to Crete and providing an effective lead in to the final chorus. As Ilia, Louise Alder gave a lovely performance in a voice that was pure, radiant and flexible, blending beautifully with the bright, vibrant singing of Caitlin Hulcup, who delivered the trouser-role of Idamante spectacularly. The part was originally written for a castrato and in places Hulcup sounded uncannily like a male soprano. Rhythmically precise, she brought a wonderful variety of colours as she alternated between the roles of lover, warrior, and willingly sacrificial son. In the part of the rejected lover Elettra, who gradually sinks into despair, Rebecca von Lipinski acted marvellously, only occasionally allowing wildness to disrupt her impressive vocal line. Her Act 1 aria bewailing the loss of Idomeneo’s love was delivered in her rival Ilia’s bedroom and descended into clothes-throwing. Her final near-suicidal scene contained genuine anguish, projecting pathos as well as rage, before she was carried away crying and wailing.
The chorus performed splendidly, producing an especially beautiful sound in the chorale-like farewell in Act 2, which anticipates the famous Act 1 trio in Così fan tutte. Tobias Ringborg favoured brisk tempi that provided strong momentum for the drama. Altogether this was a finely judged performance which demonstrated how directorial restraint can pay dividends in the face of musical and mythical seriousness.
Andrew Nash is Head of the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading where he teaches and writes about Victorian and Scottish literature, and the history of the book. His musical interests lie mainly in Italian and French opera of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and he has contributed regular reviews of summer opera to The London Magazine.