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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Iris, opera in three acts to a libretto by Luigi Illica (1898)
Iris: Karine Babajanyan (soprano)
Osaka: Samuele Simoncini (tenor)
Kyoto: Ernesto Petti (baritone)
Il Cieco: David Oštrek (bass)
Geisha: Nina Clausen (soprano)
Ragpicker: Andrès Moreno García (tenor)
Choir of the Berlin Opera Group/Steffen Schubert
Orchestra of the Berlin Opera Group/Felix Krieger
Plot synopsis and libretto in Italian and English.
rec. live, 18 February 2020, Konzerthaus Berlin
OEHMS CLASSICS OC991 [2 CDs: 119:34]

The only other recording of this opera that I have heard is the 1989 CBS Masterworks issue, with Placido Domingo taking the lead part of Osaka and Ilona Tokody as the eponymous heroine. It is only available second-hand on Amazon or Ebay but is priced similarly to this new issue, so I will go ahead and compare the two.

Mascagni, seeking to emulate his success with Cavalleria Rusticana, turned to Luigi Illica for a suitable libretto. Chinoiserie and other East-Asian decorative artifacts were very popular at the time, so Mascagni regarded the idea of an opera set in Japan to be worthy of his attention. He immersed himself in reading about Japan, and did his utmost to familiarise himself with the culture of the country, as did Illica.

The libretto itself centres around the beautiful young girl Iris, who cares for her blind father Il Cieco. Osaka has seen her. Driven by his lust, he engages Kyoto, the owner of a geisha house situated in the red-light district, to stage a kidnapping. This is carried out at a puppet show set up by the side of Iris’s garden. She is mesmerised by the performance, and is especially taken by the voice and puppet of the Son of the Sun, Jor, sung by Osaka. In the melee of the performance, she is carried off. Osaka leaves a forged note and some money for her father, who is distraught when he discovers that she is missing, especially since he believes that she has deserted him.

The following morning, Iris awakens in the luxurious geisha house and believes that she is in paradise. Osaka arrives filled with lust, but Kyoto advises him to present Iris with costly gifts to win her affection. He does so, and she is astonished by his ardour and declarations of love. He laughs at her and tells her the truth. This terrifies her, and she weeps and begs for release. Osaka is disgusted and loses interest, telling Kyoto to get rid of her.

Kyoto decides to put Iris on public display, threatening to throw her down a dark shaft unless she obeys. Her appearance on a balcony overlooking the street draws large crowds, including the despicable Osaka, who is once again taken by her beauty. At this point her father arrives, and hearing Osaka’s voice calling out to her by name, hurls mud at her and so gives vent to his fury at her supposed desertion. Mortified, she dashes into the house and throws herself down the shaft.

In the dead of night, ragpickers are at work on the bank of a foetid sewer. They catch sight of a pile of brightly coloured garments and attempt to steal them, but flee in terror when Iris’s body moves. She is cruelly hurt, and in her delirium hears the voices of Osaka, Kyoto and her father. As the sun rises and its rays touch her, she raises her hands to it, happy that this one friend has not deserted her. She dies. The scene is bathed in the rays of the sun, and Iris’s soul is carried to paradise on the tendrils of flowers that engulf her.

Mascagni composed some intriguing and often memorable music for his Japanese opera, beginning with the magnificent prologue. This tone poem depicts the passage from night-time to sunrise, and culminates in a choral greeting to the sun. It returns at the end, and although the music’s rise from the orchestral depths to the heights is clearly influenced by Wagner, Boito’s prologue and epilogue to Mefistofele spring to mind.

The orchestration was very much up to date. A particular presence was given to the exotic percussion sounds of gong, celesta, glockenspiel, bells, chimes, triangle, cymbals and drums. Puccini attended the first performance, and was certainly listening to Mascagni’s orchestra; we can hear anticipations of Butterfly and Turandot.
Mascagni did not neglect arias either. Caruso took up Osaka’s Apri la tua finestra – he can be heard on YouTube. Iris’s dream monologue Ho fatto un triste sogno at the beginning of Act 1 is extremely lyrical, and I can say the same about her monologue when she awakens in the richly decorated geisha house.

It might not be correct to regard this as a verismo opera, despite its rather sensational subject matter, because Mascagni does not employ the forthright expression found in his score for Cavalleria. Instead, sweeping lyrical passages emerge out of a pattern of recitative.

Ultimately, though, we are not moved by Iris’s gruesome fate in the same way that we are by Butterfly’s death. That is because Iris remains little more than an almost childish cipher, whose tragic end is smothered by the rather inappropriate, though beautiful sunrise apotheosis.

The Sony/CBS recording deploys an all-star cast: Ilona Tokodi as Iris, Placido Domingo as Osaka and Juan Pons as Kyoto. The chorus is of the Bavarian Radio, and the Munich Radio Orchestra plays under the baton of Giuseppe Patane. Naturally enough, the live Oehms recording has to work hard to compete. It is probably best that I include a brief excerpt from the Berlin Opera Group’s website which describes their vision:

“We are a group of international singers from all over the world including America, Ireland, Israel, Spain, Brazil, Germany, and Australia, who have come together with our shared love for beautiful music in order to bring that music to life on stage. Our idea was forged in Schöneberg, Berlin at the start of 2016, with the goal of combining quality, beauty, passion, and sincerity in this unique art form.”

It is also clear from their website that they operate via public donations. Still, it was easy to find on the Internet professional references to the artists involved on the CD. In the Covid-19 situation, many professionals in the musical world are in a state of limbo, and this might have something to do with the formation of the group. In fact, as a general statement, everyone on this recording performs extremely well, and they can be proud of their achievement, especially since the Sony/CBS recording does not win on all fronts.

Iris, the eponymous heroine, is described as an “ingenuous young girl”. Karine Babajanyan has the distinct advantage over Ilona Tokodi in that her voice sounds youthful. Tokodi was just 36 when she recorded the part, but her voice sounds like that of a much more mature woman than Babajanyan, who was about 48 when this recording was made. Tokodi can sound squally when her voice is under pressure, but she can sing without much vibrato, whereas Babajanyan employs it extensively, and for my taste, to too great a degree.

Placido Domingo was at his peak, about 47 when he recorded Iris, and it is surely unfair for me to compare his inimitable singing with that of Samuele Simoncini, who copes very well in his rather ungrateful role of Osaka. He has a clear, firm voice, only lapsing into too much uncontrolled vibrato when he has to sing full voice. Was there ever a more unlikeable operatic ‘hero’ than Osaka? I suppose Pinkerton runs him close.

The important baritone role of Kyoto is very well sung by Ernesto Petti, whose youthful voice can easily cope with the demands placed on him by Mascagni. His duets with Simoncini are excellent. The young Croatian bass David Oštrek sings splendidly in his brief role of Iris’s blind father, who has to express rage at her supposed desertion of him, rage again when he discovers her on the geisha house balcony, and finally pathos as he realises how helpless he will be without her.

The brief but prominent part of the ragpicker is taken by Andrès Moreno Garcia. He sings his short eulogy to the moon near the beginning of act 3 attractively, voice under full control. I mention this because his counterpart in the CBS/Sony recording has distinct vocal problems, so much so that I am surprised that his performance was not replaced. His first few sung words are fine, but he soon starts to struggle, and by half-way through his 46-second aria his voice is fading at the end of phrases, and in wavering loses pitch as well. He repeats his vocal woes in a reprise a few minutes later.

The chorus are well recorded and sing enthusiastically, but do not sound to be as large a group as the Munich Chorus. The orchestra may not be quite in the same league as the Munich band, but they play brilliantly for conductor Felix Krieger. The live recording is fine. I do not hear much stage noise, but the CBS/Sony is a studio recording, and the balance engineers have been able to make it sound is more vivid than Oehms have managed in Berlin.

Finally, a brief word about the booklets. Both contain extensive biographical and historical detail. CBS/Sony present a full libretto in English, Italian, German and French, in side-by-side columns. Oehms has libretto in Italian and English in two separate chapters; this makes it more difficult for the non-Italian speaker to follow the action.

I am grateful for this new recording of Mascagni’s neglected Japanese gem. The Berliner Operngruppe should be well content with their effort. I wish there were good modern recordings of more of Mascagni’s output. My enjoyment of Iris has prompted me to re-visit the Wexford Festival’s recording of Gugliemo Ratcliffe, the opera that Mascagni considered to be his best. Anyone who loves glorious singing in a romantic Italian opera should hasten to listen to the youthful Pavarotti and equally youthful Freni in their wonderful EMI recording of L’amico Fritz.

Jim Westhead

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