Pietro Mascagni: Iris (1898)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes.

iris2c_opera_by_pietro_mascagni2c_poster_by_adolf_hohenstein

1898 poster from the first production. 

Another incredibly long Mascagni post. This one is 2626 words! Considering how much I claim to dislike Mascagni I review a lot of his opera and write a lot about them!

I didn’t think I could find a social justice message for this opera since it is supposed to be vaguely a fairy-tale, but I can: the plight of sex slaves, particularly women and girls who are sold into sexual trafficking. That is what narrowly almost happens to the protagonist of this opera when she is kidnapped by a stranger who wants to have sex with her for some random reason. What saves her from a fate worse than death is, well, death, specifically at her own hand.

Yeah, this isn’t a happy entry.

This is the opera in which Mascagni tried desperately to do everything in an attempt to prove that he wasn’t a no-talent one-hit wonder living off the royalties from The Little One-Act Opera That Could: a crypt-like opening prelude contrasted with a massively explosive choral hymn (I will say more about that soon!), a Japanese girl (daughter of a blind old man) who is kidnapped by a psychotic admirer and forced into a brothel only for her to throw herself into a sewer (you heard that right), followed by a whole-tone prelude for the third act and a repeat of the massively explosive choral hymn from the beginning as she dies in the sewer. So, what could possibly go wrong? Well, if you ever wondered what the D.W. Griffith 1919 film Broken Blossoms starring Lillian Gish would look like set in Japan and involving a sewer shaft, this is essentially it except that the plot is meant to be more symbolistic than realistic. Actually this opera was successful, for a while, and is now considered to be among the top three Mascagni operas. It is not so infrequently compared to Madama Butterfly although to be honest the music sounds closer to Turandot if comparisons to a Puccini opera are to be made. Perhaps the connection to Butterfly in ones mind is because of the shared Japanese setting.

SETTING: Japan, 19th century. This has got to be one of the most depressingly sad plots in all opera: Iris (soprano), a young and innocent girl who loves nature (particularly the sun), is kidnapped during a puppet show by a rogue admirer named Osaka (tenor) and Kyoto (baritone) the keeper of a Geisha house at Yoshiwara (which are misidentified in the opera, and most of western culture, as being brothels which they are NOT!). Kyoto leaves money and a note for her blind old father (bass) cruelly implying that she has deserted him to become a prostitute. At the geisha house Osaka fails to seduce the innocent Iris and abandons her. Kyoto decides to try to market her but her father shows up and rebukes her, throwing mud at her. She then rushes back into the house and throws herself down a shaft into the sewer below where she dies the next morning.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Japanese street scene. (50 minutes)

0, 6: Son io…son io la vita!  The prelude *** starts deep and low (double bass alone representing night) and goes on to the various stages of twilight and in an at once classical and then quietly Wagnerian sort of way (the cello makes a first iteration of the main theme and you just know that if Wagner had written this it would have gone on for at least twelve minutes) before revving up (Mascagni puts the upper strings section and the harp through a high-tension harmonic exercise which rapidly starts to resemble the prelude to Lohengrin) and finally climaxing at dawn with the chorus (invisibly) singing the Hymn of the Sun **** which is the single most exquisite passage in any opera to the point that the thing would stop anyone from committing suicide and worship its devastating loveliness. If I didn’t know better it would seem to be the basis of some of the choral sequences in Turandot, but nothing there compares to this! In less than ten minutes, Mascagni pulls off what Wagner couldn’t do in five hours. It is like being purged of all sin by the rays of the sun! Other operas have passages of greater power, perhaps, but they are usually when someone has just died, this is the exact opposite, it is basically the Hymn of Life Itself! What have I been doing all twenty-eight and a half years of my life before this? I never understood what tears of joy were before this!

Oh, incidentally, there is an 18 minute long symphonic version of the opening which gives the opera a Wagnerian length overture. It is available on the Dynamic label set of Mascagni  Symphonic and Choral Works and can be located (at least for now) on YouTube. 

10: Ho fatto un triste sogno Anyway, things quiet down as Iris comes on enjoying the sun as she does to atmospheric Japanese-y music * (although much of it sounds like Wagnerian angst music, including some direct quotations from The Ring). Eventually Osaka and Kyoto trippingly plot their kidnapping. Iris returns with her blind dad (who is apparently the only Catholic in 16th century Japan as he requests a rosary from his daughter, either that or he is requesting a Buddhist prayer rope which just happens to be called by the same word in Italian).

19: Al rio! Al rio! A chorus of Japanese girls comes on to do laundry in the river while Il Cieco is at his prayers *.

22: In pure stille Iris sings a lovely song ** to the flowers while her father continues his prayers (references to nirvana imply he is Buddhist). A good rousing finish.

27: Io son Danjuro The second half of the act (and the kidnapping plot) starts with the introduction of the puppet show ** by Kyoto. A soprano Geisha performs vocals with Kyoto (who scolds her at one point when they mess up their dialogue). Eventually a brief duet occurs between the two sopranos as Iris gets way into the show. 

34: Apri la tua finestra! Not a sweeping tenor aria but good as Osaka plays in character **: somewhat sedate and entirely dependent upon its vocal execution because the orchestration is minimal thus leaving the voice almost totally exposed. In the wrong hands it could easily collapse. 

38: Io muoio! Prendimi! The puppet show ends with Iris (who is WAY too into this show) stopping the Geisha from committing suicide (in the show, not for real) over the tenor character *. A dance is then performed in which the Geishas (plural this time) entice Iris with silks and she is eventually taken by Samurai (didn’t see that one coming…). Il Cieco comes on as the troop goes off with Iris. 

44: Una carezza al vecchio cieco! Il Cieco has a short monologue * before realizing the absence of his daughter. He is told that she has gone to the Yoshiwara to be a prostitute and that money and a letter have been left for him telling him so. Il Cieco curses his daughter. Mournful orchestration closes the act effectively. 

ACT 2: The Interior of the brothel owned by Kyoto in the Yoshiwara. (49 minutes)

0: An atmospheric opener as the Geisha chants a cappella *, the curtain opening immediately without any orchestral accompaniment until Kyoto shows up and interrupts her. Supposedly this is a Japanese humming chorus, the sort that Puccini would copy in Madama Butterfly but I am not picking up on there being a chorus here. Osaka arrives and Kyoto orders the women out.

4: Sollevami il velario! Osaka wants to see Iris, but she is asleep. Kyoto allows him to see her as she sleeps and this prompts a delicate moment from him *. The two men leave after a pretty exchange from the woodwinds and strings. 

9: Oh! il bel velario… Iris awakens and believes herself to be in paradise. She takes up a Japanese instrument and sings a song, then drops it for some seam-work. She runs the gambit of human emotions. It is a long monologue **, without either a tune that stands out nor continuous accompaniment; the sentiment and emotions (which are deep) must be carried out by the voice itself. 

20: Oh, come al tuo sottile The attempted seduction duet ** goes on for over a quarter of an hour and starts with a step-by-step bounce.

26: Un di, ero piccina Eventually Iris freaks out and ends up singing a song ** about a woman in a painting she saw as a child on the wall of a Buddhist temple in which the woman is consumed by an Octopus for a while to a back and forth tune in the strings but this leads at some point to an explosive finish and she prostrates herself before him begging him to have mercy on her. He furthers his attempt by trying to make her trust him (when she really shouldn’t). She weeps as he tries to rape her and he stops, prompting her to hide away from him (with good reason of course). 

34: Nullo desio ti adesca Again she begs him to let her go * and this time he gives up and tells Kyoto to get rid of her. Kyoto decides to promote her as one of his girls in order to make money off of her. The Geishas come in and dress her as Kyoto goes through protocol.

40: Iris eventually addresses the mask she is to wear *. 

43: Oh, meraviglia delle meraviglie! The sale sequence ** a surprisingly well constructed section as the chorus crowds about at the window. 

45: Iris, son io! Osaka comes on and attempts to liberate Iris because he is horrified by why Kyoto has decided to do with her ** but the guards stop him. 

47: Padre! Sono Iris! Il Cieco arrives, Iris tries to get his attention but when she does he condemns her and she runs into the house and throws herself into the sewer **. 

ACT 3: The sewer, before dawn. (28 minutes)

0: The act opens with a long prelude that is entirely based on a whole-tone scale **.

7: Ad ora bruna e tarda The song of the ragpicker * as he and his crew of scavengers wade about in excrement. 

14: Ognun pel suo cammino As she dies, Iris is visited by phantoms of the three men *, the first is Osaka, who is perhaps the most gentle, followed by Kyoto, and then her father Il Cieco. 

18: Ancora il triste sogno pauroso! Iris waits to die **. 

23: Il sole?… She suddenly sees the sun, and dies, becoming the flower that is her namesake. The chorus takes over as the sun rises and they repeat their chorus ***, sort of, it isn’t quite to the same extreme as before (but yet again what could?). It actually comes off like the prototype for the end of Turandot

COMMENTS:

This opera has very mixed reviews online. Some people think it is the single best thing Mascagni ever wrote (usually those who rightfully trash Cav), others that it has a couple of highlights (the wonder of the Hymn to the Sun is the one uncontested item in the score, even the deaf know that that thing is just beyond magnificence) but is otherwise totally forgettable, and then some weirdos like me fall somewhere in the middle.

Generally when this opera is compared to Butterfly it is to ridicule it for its thin and motivation-less plot. It is true that the Japan of Iris is a fantasy island, but it really isn’t fair to compare it to the later Puccini opera. Part of the problem is the general assumption that Mascagni equals verismo, which this isn’t. Second is the equation of mature Puccini with verismo, which Butterfly isn’t unless you are on crack. First of all the stereotypes are not nearly as terrible here as they are in Butterfly. Yes the men are vile, but the Japanese setting is incidental, all it really does it make it more exotic to a western audience and thus more unreal and fairy-tale like. There is no cultural clash here as in Butterfly, everyone is Japanese, no one is a westernized wannabe like Cio-Cio ends up going. There are no toxic westerners and no references to the American National Anthem. There are reverential references to Buddhist theology here, whereas in Butterfly the American characters openly and rather notoriously make fun of Buddhism. Iris is also more innocent than Butterfly, she shows up a virgin and dies a virgin. Butterfly leaves a son from her relationship with Pinkerton before committing harakiri, something Iris doesn’t do. The one similarity I can see between this and the later Puccini work is the skillful handling of the orchestration, which is lush even when it is minimal. The crudity of Cav is, for the most part, completely absent.

A case can be made that if Puccini had not written Madama Butterfly this would still be in the standard repertoire. I have to admit, I would have preferred that. Both operas are low on action, that is definite, but Butterfly has a noxious Americana to it which this doesn’t have. Because the characters are all Japanese, there is no cultural clash and for once on this site, that is rather welcomed! Also, nothing in the later Puccini opera compares to the grandeur of The Hymn of the Sun: compare that to the totally disconnected fugue that opens Butterfly. There is also the fact that Iris, until Cio-Cio San, is driven to suicide not by her own actions, but by what three men have done (or tried to do) to her, and the moralizing of her own father who curses her. This deflects blame from the heroine where no such thing exists for the teenage Butterfly, who stupidly gets herself into trouble with an American naval officer. The fact that Butterfly gave birth to a son, while Iris dies a virgin, makes the Puccini opera far less tragic, and yet it is the Mascagni heroine who ends up in Shinto Heaven! Neither of the tenor leads are worthy of our sympathy, but the fact that Iris is alone, there is no Suzuki, adds to our sympathy for her. By the end of Butterfly the tragedy is deflected to the surviving characters, Cio-Cio becomes a symbol rather than a flesh and blood human being, because none of her actions resemble those of a human being (she also comes off in act one as borderline mentally ill, but not in a way that would encourage our sympathy). We get into the psyche of Iris, and we grow to love her.

There are at least two incredibly negative things about this opera. One is that the story is excruciatingly painful to watch, especially the first time. A happy young girl is kidnapped, almost raped, and then sold publicly for sex only for her to escape with her virtue by committing suicide by throwing herself into a sewer (I can not overemphasis the brutality of this plot point even by operatic standards!). It was hard to get through this review because I had to watch what was happening.

Surprisingly, with all the misery going on in this opera, and real life, it is easy to overlook the epilogue of the work, which specifically states that the story is a life affirming parable. After a few times (I actually had to watch the opera three times to really get it) you start to realize that the story is rather brilliant, but that first time it was just so shocking.

Two, perhaps much less important given the circumstances, the score lacks many obvious highlights, possibly due to it being an experimental work. Many of the soprano and tenor arias occur with minimal orchestral accompaniment, or they do have accompaniment, but are so dependent upon their vocal execution to get the emotions across that the casting for the two leads has to be perfect or otherwise I could easily see the opera falling apart in performance. There are some set pieces that stand out, but the only great thing is that Hymn of the Sun thing.

And no, nothing ever again will get four stars, it belongs to it alone! I balled for an hour after hearing it.

I feel so uncomfortable with this entry, both for what it is at face value and for how I have evaluated it.

Puccini wrote in a letter dated to 21 January 1899 about Iris:

Per me quest’opera che ha in sè tante cose belle e uno strumentale dei più smaglianti e coloriti, ha il difetto d’origine: l’azione che non unteressa e si diluisce e langue per tre atti. . . . Tu che gli sei amico vero, digli che ritorni alla passione, al sentimento vivo, umano, col quale iniziò tanto brillantemente la sua carriera.

[For me this opera, which has such beautiful things in it and is scored in a most brilliant and colorful way, has this fundamental defect: the action is not interesting and languishes and flags for three acts. . . . You, who are his true friend, should tell him that he ought to return to the passion and the lively and human feelings with which he began his career in such a brilliant manner.]

In spite of this, I really must recommend this opera to anyone who listens to opera. You have to persevere with it, even push yourself to watch it, but it is worth it.

It might be controversial, but for the Inno del Sole alone, I think I can mark this down as a beta plus. Maybe an A- might just be pushing it a little.

9 thoughts on “Pietro Mascagni: Iris (1898)

  1. Glad you sorta? liked it. Mascagni doesn’t get any better than Iris for me though. I’m afraid like you I found him a second rate composer.

    May I be bold to recommend another opera for you? Anton Rubinstein: The Demon. Better than any Rimsky Korsakov work IMO and a huge influence on Eugene Onegin.

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  2. I’m glad you sorta? liked it. No grade though? I saw also that you downgraded Rusalka, any reasons for that?

    Gotta say quickly that you and Operascribe converted me into a Meyerbeer fan. I went along with the received opinion that he was a hackneyed composer, how wrong I was! I now regard Les Huguenots and Le Prophete to belong in the top echelon of operas! I’m warming up to Vasco de Gama/L’Africaine as well. It’s a shame, no scratch that, a crime against humanity that they’ve fallen out of the repertoire!

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    1. Well thank you, Kevin! And I am sure OperaScribe would be thrilled to know this.

      I can be long-winded, so I am rather certain that this response will be long, just a warning!

      Usually when something used to be popular, (Meyerbeer was beyond that for most of the 19th century), and then disappears, there is usually an ideological reason behind the drop in popularity. With Meyerbeer that was obviously the rise of Wagnerianism. Meyerbeer appeared to be antiquated, but really he wasn’t any more so than Donizetti or Bellini. His late works are on par with early and middle period Verdi, hardly archaic! By 1890, most thought that Meyerbeer was unoriginal, when in fact it was later composers who had been copying him.

      As for the downgrade on Rusalka: I was wary about where to place it. The plot (particularly the ending) is disturbing to me even if I love most of the music (although I really don’t like the act 1 transformation music), and the reaction from OperaScribe confirmed my suspicions so I downgraded it slightly.

      For Iris, I honestly could not figure out what grade to give it, so I didn’t give a grade. Parts of it are beyond amazing, but others really bored me. The initial star-ratings were generally lower than what ended up getting posted. I watched the opera three times because on the first go I panned it (even Inno del Sole got only two-stars, if you can believe it!), the second time I started to pick up on the rationale of the story, and the third time I finally ended up greatly surprised. I have sometimes had to listen to an opera twice before submitting a post, or even changed the recording I was reviewing, but never have I had to put so much effort into a review as I did this time. I think the sound quality of the performance I chose is poor, and that is partial to blame for my initial reaction.

      There are definitely better performances of Inno del Sole than in this 1996 live performance, even if just the sound quality is taken into account. The complete opera could really do with a studio recording, of which I do not think any such thing currently exists.

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      1. There is a nice studio recording of Iris, it’s the one I’ve had for several years now: It’s on the cbs masterworks label with Domingo and conducted by Patane. Not sure if it’s out of print but try to find it, it’s worth it.

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    2. Incidentally, about the star-rankings (and I have to remind OperaScribe about this occasionally as well so no sweat), twos and threes are always a good thing. A lot of operas get a lot of twos, that doesnt mean they are bad or that I am in some way displeased with them! I think some people get intimidated if I am not off giving threes left and right. Threes are reserved for wow my mind just got blown by musical awesomeness moments, twos are very good moments and should not be dismissed as me being unsatisfied with them. Ones can be a more difficult call. Sometimes they are a mild and/or brief number I happen to like or at least find okay but in theory you could skip it if you are skimming the review and don’t have two to four hours, or they are something I have to give a star to even if it isn’t all that great because it is either structurally notable (a lot of overtures) and thus worth looking out for, albeit dull to me, or occasionally a famous piece I personally just find boring (Apri la tua finestra initially was a one-star item because frankly I didn’t get what everyone else was going on about it the first time I heard it). There is a no-star ranking after all even if it is generally invisible. Those are really when I am voicing my displeasure, although worse yet are the instances when I don’t even mention certain numbers at all: like the series of duets between the father and fiance of Joan in The Maid of Orleans!

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    3. Kevin, glad to know that you’re becoming a Meyerbeer enthusiast! He’s wonderful. I listened to Huguenots a dozen years back, largely out of curiosity – and was astonished by how good he was – a missing link between Mozart and Rossini on one hand, and mature Verdi on the other.

      Which recordings of Vasco have you heard? (L’Africaine is really, as someone said, edited highlights from Vasco.)

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      1. I have the one you recommended: Myto label with Gerd Albrecht conducting(I’ve always found him a mediocre conductor, no sense of theatre, needless to say I didn’t enjoy the work!) Then I thought I’d give it another go and got the CPO release(Vascon da Gama) and have been most impressed with it. The score too me is more refined, subtle even and for once Meyerbeer emerges as a fine melodist, the one area I think he struggles in most and IMO the main reason he’s not more popular. So… yeah I’m warming up to it alright!

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  3. This sounds intriguing; I’ve heard it once, but don’t remember much, except the general outline of the plot. The story sounds Berg-level grim; can you comment more on why it’s a life-affirming parable?

    So is the Inno del sole your all-time favourite scene in opera? (You say you’ll never give anything else four stars.) It’s impressive, lusher, and more Germanic than you’d expect from Italian opera (even in this period). But is it as sublime as this?

    I listened to it again on the weekend. I was in that state of transcendental bliss that one only gets from him and – yes, I admit it – Wagner. My mind soared to empyrean heights, my soul was enraptured, and I lay on my bed, staring into space, occasionally saying “Wow”.

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