Notes and Editorial Reviews
Domingo is in full, burnished voice, rising splendidly to the wild ardour of this underrated opera.
In the words of a survey of nineteenth-century Italian opera, published by the
Corriere della sera to mark the turning of the century, Mascagni was "condemned to a masterpiece": after the triumph of Cavalleria rusticana nothing less would do. He lived for another 55 years, and although some of his 14 subsequent operas were immensely successful for a while (he claimed that Iris was better received than Cavalleria, and there was a near-riot of enthusiasm at the premiere of Il piccolo Marat) none was judged by the critics to be the awaited 'masterpiece', and nearly all had fallen from the repertory by the end of his life. It would be a sad enough story if all that he had done was to attempt, vainly, to repeat his first success. The evidence (of Il piccolo Marat, of L'amico Fritz, of Iris—I cannot claim to have heard all fourteen) suggests that he did no such thing, that he had the capacity to develop, and the scruple and the skill to strike out on new paths, and that his very reluctance to repeat himself contributed to the long decline of his career.
Iris is an extremely interesting opera, even (in the context of late nineteenth-century Italy) an 'experimental' one. It contains an elaborate 'play within a play', both triggering the main event of the drama (the abduction of the innocent child Iris by a libertine and his procurer) and foreshadowing its outcome (her father curses her, believing that she has voluntarily become a prostitute) with pathetic irony. There is a duet in which one character speaks while the other sings, and a crucial wordless scene where 'light' music darkens to accompany sinister action. The rich orchestration is filled with cunningly contrived local colour (the opera is set in Japan) from which Puccini clearly learned a thing or two when writing Madama Butterfly six years later (there is an offstage humming chorus in Iris, too . . . ). Each act has a quasisymphonic, atmospheric orchestral prelude, and each scene has at least one strong coup-de-théâtre: the puppet-play itself in Act 1 (Iris is so caught up with the sad story that she is at one point heard in touchingly sympathetic duet with her puppet alter ego); in Act 2, the paper walls of Iris's oppressively luxurious prison slide away to reveal the brothel quarter of Tokyo, with a noisy crowd of eager customers clamouring for her; and the Act 3 curtain rises, not, as we half expect, on Iris's longed for but now desolate home, but on an open sewer, with scavengers rooting among the filth, eventually discovering a body wrapped in mud-spattered silken rags.
And is the music up to it? It is, and it is quite unlike Cavalleria, save in its melodiousness. The once famous "Hymn to the Sun", which opens and closes the opera, has a brazen, only slightly over-the-top splendour. Iris has four solo scenes, each with its own curiously still, passive pathos, rising to heart-warming Italianate eloquence at the end, as she dies, welcoming the rising sun as her deliverer. The odious Osaka has at least the elegant (and also once famous) serenade "Apri la tua finestra" and several other pages of warm and ample ardour (true, he ought to have been the tenor equivalent of Peter Lorre, but would you have written such a part for Fernando de Lucia?) and most of Mascagni's 'experiments' actually work: the 'play within a play' is oddly, grippingly effective; the wordless dance scene is salon music, really, but with a queer dramatic power to it; the three 'visions' that appear to Iris in her degradation, ghosts of those whose egoism has destroyed her, are simple (plain vocal lines over dark solo strings) but telling.
Oh, yes, if you insist, I shall have to admit that Mascagni is Mascagni (which is to say 'like Puccini but not quite so good'); that Illica's vaporous and mystical libretto is something of a liability; and yes, all the characters save Iris are two-dimensional. But the quality of the opera's best pages suggests that Mascagni was the victim of the unkindest injustice of all: condemned for not living up to Cavalleria when he had, if intermittently, surpassed it.
A fine performance and an excellent recording (not the first, as CBS claim; I have heard two others, one of which at least seems not to have been pirated—taken from a Dutch radio tape— both featuring that riveting artist Magda Olivero in the title-role). Tokody's exciting, rather Callas-like voice has a slight wobble under pressure on high notes, but she makes a touching and lull-voiced Iris. Domingo is in full, burnished voice as well (a bit too full in the serenade, perhaps, but rising splendidly to the wild ardour of the scene in which Osaka realizes what he has lost by his contemptuous dismissal of Iris as a mere unresponsive doll). Pons and Giaiotti bring vocal distinction and something like a third dimension of real character to the cynical whore-monger and the stern, blind father; Patané lavishes affectionate care on Mascagni's polychrome orchestra; only a woefully inadequate First Ragpicker lowers the standard of the supporting cast. The whole enterprise is let down rather by the provision of a florid and often ludicrously inaccurate English translation of the libretto, but don't let that put you off. Iris, as Mascagni said, is an opera with almost too much music in it.
-- Gramophone [9/1989]