It's the soprano's job in opera to suffer. They're poisoned, they're ravaged by nasty diseases, they're abandoned by lovers, they fling themselves from castle ramparts or into avalanches. It's a precarious occupation, to say the least. Few sopranos suffer quite as much – and quite so miserably – as Mascagni's Iris. Abducted and sold into prostitution, cursed by her blind father, she throws herself into a sewer where she dies a protracted death. Anne-Sophie Duprels thrives on soprano misery, however, and wrings out every last drop of emotion in Opera Holland Park's new staging opening its 2016 season.

Anne Sophie Duprels (Iris) © Robert Workman
Anne Sophie Duprels (Iris)
© Robert Workman

This isn't OHP's first encounter with Iris though – they've got 'history', staging it in 1997, a production revived the following year. General Director Mike Volpe is passionate about the opera and rates it above Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Both are set in Japan, Iris pre-dating Butterfly by five years. Puccini even used the same librettist, Luigi Illica. There's no doubt Butterfly suffers, abandoned by her American naval officer husband, naively awaiting his return. However, Iris is a much grittier tale. Osaka, a rich young noble, lusts after her, aided by a brothel-keeper, and there is never a hint of love. Her suffering is relentless. The opera is stirred up by symbolism – Iris dreams her doll is threatened by monsters – and is framed by a choral hymn to the sun. This hymn is the highlight of Mascagni's score, a glorious orchestral tsunami flooding the stage, gongs and brass ablaze. Elsewhere, there isn't as much japonaiserie as in Butterfly: strummed violins add local colour and a simple solo flute motif depicting Iris hints at the orient. It is a chromatically and harmonically rich score, although not as overripe as Guglielmo Ratcliff (which I find the stronger work).

Olivia Fuchs updates the action to a contemporary Japanese water garden, beset with origami lotuses, where three bamboo-caged platforms are reached via tree stump stepping stones. The problem with this conceit is that while the washerwomen respect this stage space, treading gingerly from one stone to the next, dancers and the troupe of actors who put on the puppet play ignore it. Otherwise, Soutra Gilmour's set serves the action well enough. One of the cages represents the geisha's cell in which Iris is imprisoned, while the sewer into which she lands is created by murky lighting. Red rope depict the rays of the sun, absorbing Iris back into nature as she dies.

Opera Holland Park Chorus © Robert Workman
Opera Holland Park Chorus
© Robert Workman

Anne Sophie Duprels gives a tireless performance as Iris. She is convincingly naïve, toying with her doll, entranced by the puppet show during which she is kidnapped. Her confusion at Osaka's offers of jewels and silks – and his sexual advances – was terrifying. Forced to parade her wares in a pink negligée, her humiliation prickled. Amid the sun's rays, Mascagni at least allows her a radiant death before the choral apotheosis. Vocally, her soprano can be as gritty as the plot, powerful, but lacking cream. However, sensitive phrasing and characterisation aided a deeply affecting portrayal.

Anne Sophie Duprels (Iris) and Noah Stewart (Osaka) © Robert Workman
Anne Sophie Duprels (Iris) and Noah Stewart (Osaka)
© Robert Workman

The three men in Iris' life were all well sung even if, dramatically, there was less scope for them to develop their roles. Noah Stewart's tenor opened up well to reveal a nice, bright tone as Osaka, pressing his claims via Illica's perfumed libretto: “Let my desire enter your veil” indeed! His Act II serenade “Apri la tua finestra” brimmed with ardour and he circled Iris in her cage like a panther. Baritone James Cleverton was firm-voiced but suitably slippery as Kyoto, while Mikhail Svetlov played another blind father (he was Archiboldo in last season's L'amore del tre re), his booming bass convincing rather more than his acting. His neat manoeuvring across the stepping stones – unaided – didn't ring true for someone unable to see. At least Fuchs finally puts these three “behind bars” in the final act for their brief solos, although Mascagni makes their remorse at Iris' situation seemed a bit half-hearted.

The Opera Holland Park Chorus was in superb voice. Chorus master Nicholas Jenkins has worked miracles with them, the opening and closing hymn to the sun was shattering in its power. Mascagni's lavish score doesn't approach Butterfly, but Stuart Stratford clearly loves it and, a few horn bumps aside, the City of London Sinfonia played magnificently.

Iris isn't a masterpiece, but it is well worth exploring. The relentless suffering of the heroine makes for a powerful evening, especially with Duprels on such searching form.