Article by James Naughtie, 1997
What if Puccini hadn’t produced Madame Butterfly? Would Mascagni known most intimately to most of us now as the shorter half of Cav and Pag, have been forever associated with the best-known ‘Japanese opera’ in the repertoire? Perhaps. Musically, it surely certain that Iris – which has some glorious writing for the chorus and glittering orchestration – would have been more widely performed. Dramatically, it would probably still have struggled…though maybe again it is the comparison with Puccini, whose pace is so gripping, that is most damaging. It certainly doesn’t deserve its relative obscurity in this country. Once again, audiences can be reminded that, especially in the Italian repertoire, there are still gems to be mined. Like L’amico Fritz, much performed in Italy but often ignored elsewhere, this is Mascagni in touching mood.
What does an audience do when it is confronted with an opera it hardly knows? This may be obvious but it is important: remember that the music comes first. The plot summary for Iris may make some eyes glaze over, and prosaic descriptions of the healing power of the sun on the soul at the end of Act III don’t always make the opera seem irresistible. But wait…any ear that opens willingly to the first hymn to the sun at the beginning of Act I will understand that Mascagni’s musical world is alluring. The chorus sings of the infinite power of the sun, and how it can guide the doings of mere mortals, or at least sustain and freshen their world. This is the higher power that flows around the figure of Iris, who freshen their world. This is the higher power that flows around the figure of Iris, who appears at the beginning as an unhappy soul, tormented by grotesque dreams of dragons and creepy-crawlies, and fevered in body and mind. The contrast is crude, and that simple juxtaposition between human weakness and other-worldly strength, underpins everything until the moment when Iris dies in the knowledge of ‘the great golden eye that watches over her. So the charm of the opera is not the complications of plot, nor even indeed in the changes that afflict the characters, but in the way this straightforward picture of humanity’s plight is presented in music.
And it works. After he was given the libretto by Luigi Illica, Mascagni knew that it was melodrama of the sort that needed to be transformed in music if it was to find a place on the operatic stage, and he did it. With typical immodesty he wrote: ‘I always searched for melody and hoped I would be accused of even having found too much.’ Both Iris and tenor Osaka have arias in Act I that are intensely moving, and have a kind of hypnotic gentleness. In particular, the ensemble writing for female voices is likely to capture any audience: from the opening bars Mascagni creates an atmosphere of free flowing calm that feels utterly original. Puccini himself attended the first night in Rome in November 1898 (which was a great success for Mascagni) praised the beauty of the score and delivered this compliment from the back of his hand: ‘Even if God Almighty himself had set this libretto to music, he could not have done more with it than Pietro.’ So Illica is blamed for any defects, despite his past and soon-to-come collaborations with Puccini, including in the writing of Madame Butterfly.
The way with Iris is not to worry about the shape of the action, or the narrative drive, but to think of it more as a kind of poem, which proceeds at a pace set by the dreamy atmosphere for the opening scene. Its charm is in the majesty of some of the chorus writing, its melodic intimacy and – so various critics have noted – its inventive use of chromatic progressions and gentle dissonance. This is a polished score, which demands a great deal from orchestra and principal soloists (though the lesser characters have a much easier time, and live their short lives on the stage well out of the sun’s rays).
Mascagni argued that he wanted a feeling of ‘Inexorable force’ in the opera, his answer to the inevitable accusation that the action might seem sluggish. By the end of Act I, that force has been powerfully established. By the time Iris discovers herself in paradise in Act II, there is a recognisable musical landscape around her. It is not nearly so ’Japanese’, in the sense of repetitive catchphrases, as Butterfly would be six years later, but it is an original setting for what is, in practice, a fairy tale. This is a world of dreams, but also of human agony which can only be assuaged by an external power that, in the end, lifts up Iris’s soul. Listening to a recording from CBS masterworks, with Ilona Tokody and Placido Domingo, I became aware of the importance of letting the score creep up on you. It is gentle, without many firework bursts, and that is ow Mascagni manages to soften the edges of the melodrama.
It seems that it has only been performed seriously in this country a couple of times (a semi-amateur production in Fulham in 1967 and a concert performance on the South Bank in 1996) since 1919, when it was seen at Covent Garden. Of Mascagni’s sixteen works for stage it stands somewhat on its own, because of the way he tries to deal with allegory. But even with characters who are not involved in blood-and-guts collisions he manages to stir up moments of real lyrical intensity. He said rather grandly after the first night that he had deliberately avoided creating moments of virtuosity for the principals, because moments of silence in the audience were often more conducive to a good atmosphere, than outbursts of enthusiasm – but despite that defensive-sounding footnote, there is an atmosphere of concentration in Iris that gives the central character an intensity that should evoke the sympathy that should be the point of the opera.
Above all this is an opera that reminds everyone of how the repertoire can be broadened. In recent times, various festivals in these islands, Wexford most famously and successfully, have deliberately trawled the seashore for pieces that have somehow ended up as flotsam and jetsam. Sometimes they are chucked back in. Iris should not be: Mascagni should be known far more than Cav. From its beginning, Iris divided the critics, even in Italy where it is best-known. But this production should make a strong case for it. Such operas need to be aired, because by their very rediscovery they can broaden the repertoire.
It’s the curse of every age to be stuck with inherited prejudices of taste, and the task of opera houses and festival impresarios is to challenge the settled assumption that everything worthwhile is ‘known’. That attitude suppressed early Verdi until comparatively recently: it even afflicted Rossini, despite the evergreen popularity of some of his work. As with Donizetti’s Betly at Holland Park in 1995, this production is part of the boldness that has to run through any opera programme. From the moment Iris was announced, there was a stirring of interest, demonstrating that among opera audiences there is always a thirst for the new or the forgotten or shadowy work. Open-mindedness is an important part of theatre-going – how could it be otherwise? – and if every opera were to be saddled with its reputation, where would we be?
The sound world of Iris is evocative and alluring. Settle down to the gentle tremblings of the opening chorus, picture the milky sunrises of old opening chorus, picture the milky sunrises of old Japan, and let Mascagni weave his patterns around you. It will be probably be a nice surprise.
James Naughtie presents Today on BBC Radio 4 and is a regular presenter of opera on BBC Television and Radio 3