Richard Bratby

Sadistic and repellent and thrilling: Mascagni’s Iris reviewed

Plus: The Simpsons' theme tune – a concerto for orchestra in 90 note-perfect seconds

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Iris

City Halls, Glasgow

Danny Elfman Gala

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

If you’ve ever felt that poor Madama Butterfly had a bit of a raw deal, then you really, really don’t want to know what happens in Mascagni’s Iris. Take that as a spoiler alert: our Japanese heroine is so young that as the opera opens, she’s playing with a doll. She’s abducted, installed in a brothel and offered up for the delectation of a noble client, whose advances she is too innocent to comprehend. Disowned by her blind father, by the beginning of Act Three she’s literally lying in a sewer listening to disembodied voices telling her that nothing could have prevented this outcome. Obviously, it sounds exquisite.

You don’t have to be a social justice warrior to find Iris a bit much. Mascagni and his librettist Illica (who wrote Butterfly six years later) call their male leads Osaka and Kyoto — that’s about the level of their engagement with Japanese culture. And while Butterfly at least has the courage of her convictions, the child-like Iris, with her ‘eyes like camellias’, is a hopelessly naive, impossibly passive fantasy object. The only legitimate response is pity. Misogyny has become the opera-hater’s all-purpose j’accuse: yet in Iris, the male characters are so one-dimensionally loathsome that the piece is practically a libel against masculinity.

The conductor Stuart Stratford effectively acknowledged as much in a brief spoken introduction to this concert performance by the orchestra and chorus of Scottish Opera. Iris has been credibly staged in recent years (most notably by the verismo salvage experts at Opera Holland Park) and a director, Roxana Haines, was credited here. But after a week of (apparently) flu-ridden rehearsals which culminated in the loss of Helena Dix as Iris, and her last minute replacement by Kiandra Howarth, any attempt at semi-staging had understandably been jettisoned.

So the cast lined up in their kimonos and sang their parts from music stands, and I’m not sure that we were any the worse for it. Iris is a ravishing score, complete with mandolin, breathy flutes and tuned gongs which dapple the music like the flecks of gold leaf on a Klimt painting. The opera begins with an eerily beautiful double bass solo, gradually woven into a translucent, chromatic skein of string textures before swelling into a choral sunrise that makes the Alfano ending of Turandot sound understated.

And with a cast like this, Mascagni’s habit of preparing to launch into a million-dollar melody and then failing to do so didn’t really matter. Howarth shone like a sunbeam as she floated her notes above a surging orchestra, but she also had a tremulous quiver in her voice — intensely expressive of a girl clinging desperately to her own reality. Ric Furman, as her would-be molester Osaka, made the best of an unsympathetic role and didn’t always manage to carry his tenor over the orchestra, which might well be Mascagni’s fault. James Creswell as Iris’s father supplied the vocal dignity and warmth that Mascagni withheld from the other male characters, though Roland Wood carried off the role of the pimp Kyoto with a brassy insouciance.

The audience certainly enjoyed it, even after the scene in which Iris describes a particularly sadistic piece of tentacle porn (Mascagni sets it to hollow, slimy harmonies in what might be the single most repellent sequence in any opera). The fascination is real; just as, unanswerably, the sonic thrills of Mascagni’s score are real, and the erotic frisson of Illica’s slavering description of Iris’s naked body is real. That’s humans for you; we’re a pretty sick bunch. I see Aliens is on the TV again tonight: graphically realistic images of sexualised monsters eviscerating living people. You could watch it after dinner. Or Joker is still showing at the flicks: ‘strong bloody violence’ sounds jolly. This is what people enjoy. Why should opera be held to a different standard?

At the Royal Concert Hall, Danny Elfman got an ovation simply for walking on stage. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra under John Mauceri played the UK première of Elfman’s new violin concerto, a four-movement work performed with bouncy, boogying verve by the violinist Sandy Cameron. Rather like Mascagni, Elfman delivers striking colours — solo violin against untuned percussion; sparse string phrases falling away to the thud of a bass drum— without ever quite breaking into the indelible melody that his reputation, possibly unfairly, led one to expect.

Elfman’s film scores for Tim Burton are another matter. A suite from 1989’s Batman had more than enough gothic glitter to sustain its 16-minute length and Cameron returned for a wild, gypsy-like solo episode amid the wordless choirs and diaphanous waltz melodies of Edward Scissorhands. The encore, naturally, was the theme from The Simpsons: shimmering like some fabulous neon-lit hallucination as the full RSNO chorus tanked out the titles. A concerto for orchestra in 90 note-perfect seconds.