OPERA Mascagni's Iris Holland Park, London

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The Independent Culture
The Italian operas flying the banner of verismo (realism) might be better identified as sentimentalismo, so assiduously do they skirt reality. Take Mascagni's Iris, typical japonaiserie, premiered in 1898, five years before Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Luigi Illica worked on both librettos). Iris, a washerwoman who cares for her blind father, is abducted by the libertine Osaka and his associate, Kyoto. Installed in the latter's brothel, bedecked in flimsy finery, she's paraded to potential customers, at which point her father reappears and flings mud at her. At this Iris throws herself into the sewers, where scavengers strip her body of valuables. With her dying breath, she bids farewell to light and warmth while her soul journeys heavenward.

Brothels and sewers, mud and blindness, pimps and rakes: the stuff of Zola's lower depths, but for Mascagni and Illica, they're picturesque incidentals. What matters is one more example of womanly innocence betrayed, then finally redeemed by death. In those terms the opera succeeds pretty well, with music that is bewitchingly lovely if somewhat stately. It's a rarity, so Opera Holland Park's staging is a welcome opportunity to discover what else the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana got up to.

Unfortunately, Tom Hawkes's staging (complete with sensurround incense) seems no more convinced by the substance of the story than Mascagni and Illica were. Peter Rice's set has a black backdrop which does little, other than conceal the brickwork of Holland House, and a stylised bridge which cuts the stage in half, restricting space for the chorus, and for Mary Anne Kraus's choreography. The costumes are by couturiers Charles and Patricia Lester, whose gorgeous fabrics and lustrous colours do nothing to suggest grime and grit. Since Hawkes's use of his singers is equally prettified, the production is as sentimental as the opera. It doesn't help that the sub-titles (badly co-ordinated on the opening night) are to the side of the stage, so that following text and action is like following the ball at Wimbledon.

The singers deserve better. As Iris, Susan Stacey has tremendous dramatic force, although there is also a certain hardness, perhaps exaggerated by the generally discreet amplification. To have Justin Lavender as Osaka is a coup, but he was not at his very best on the opening night, as if a veil obscured the most attractive part of the voice. Still he cuts a convincingly dangerous rake, while Gerard O'Connor makes the blind father a saturnine figure, cold and unyielding even if the bass wobbles a bit. Mascagni gives them lovely music, and his writing places the chorus at the centre of the action, but it's in the orchestra that his talent shines. The music flows effusively from the single-bowed double-bass that slowly emerges in the opening moments to the final chorus that returns the opera to silence. Mascagni's extensive use of percussion may be no more than exoticism, but it gives the piece a distinctive, rather forward-looking tinta. John Gibbons's passionate conducting ensures that, musically at least, Iris has every opportunity to blossom, but on this evidence it's something of a hot-house bloom, beguiling but unnatural.

Further perfs tonight, tomorrow. Booking: 0171-602 7856 Nick Kimberley