Opera in three acts, by Mascagni. Words by Luigi Illica. Produced Constanzi Theatre. Rome, November 22, 1898; revised version, La Scala, Milan, 1899. Philadelphia, October 14, 1902, and Metropolitan Opera House, New York, October 16, 1902, under the composer’s direction (Marie Farneti, as Iris); Metropolitan Opera House, 1908, with Eames (Iris), Caruso (Osaka), Scotti, and Journet; April 3, 1915, Bori, Botta, and Scotti.
Time: Nineteenth century. Place: Japan.
Act I. The home of Iris near the city. The hour is before dawn. The music depicts the passage from night into day. It rises to a crashing climax — the instrumentation including tamtams, cymbals, drums, and bells — while voices reiterate, “Calore! Luce! Amor!” (Warmth! Light! Love!). In warmth and light there are love and life. A naturalistic philosophy, to which this opening gives the key, runs through “Iris.”
Fujiyama glows in the early morning light, as Iris, who loves only her blind father, comes to the door of her cottage. She has dreamed that monsters sought to injure her doll, asleep under a rosebush. With the coming of the sun the monsters have fled. Mousmés come to the bank of the stream and sing prettily over their work.
Iris is young and beautiful. She is desired by Osaka, a wealthy rake. Kyoto, keeper of a questionable resort, plots to obtain her for him. He comes to her cottage with a marionette show. While Iris is intent upon the performance, three geisha girls, representing Beauty, Death, and the Vampire, dance about her. They conceal her from view by spreading their skirts. She is seized and carried off. Osaka, by leaving money for the blind old father, makes the abduction regal. When Il Cieco returns, he is led to believe that his daughter has gone voluntarily to the Yoshiwara. In a rage he starts out to find her.
Act II. Interior of the “Green House” in the Yoshiwara. Iris awakens. At first she thinks it is an awakening after death. But death brings paradise, while she is unhappy. Osaka, who has placed jewels beside her, comes to woo, but vainly seeks to arouse her passions. In her purity she remain unconscious of the significance of his words and caresses. His brilliant attire leads her to mistake him for Tor, the sun god, but he tells her he is Pleasure. That frightens her. For, as she narrates to him, one day, in the temple, a priest told her that pleasure and death were one.
Osaka wearies of her innocence and leaves her. But Kyoto, wishing to lure him back, attires her in transparent garments and places her upon a balcony. The crowd in the street cries out in amazement over her beauty. Again Osaka wishes to buy her. She hears her father’s voice. Joyously she makes her presence known to him. He, ignorant of her abduction and believing her a voluntary inmate of the “Green House,” takes a handful of mud from the street, flings it at her, and curses her. In terror, she leaps from a window into the sewer below.
Act III. Ragpickers and scavengers are dragging the sewer before daylight. In song they mock the moon. A flash of light from the mystic mountain awakens what is like an answering gleam in the muck. They discover and drag out the body of Iris. They begin to strip her jewels. She shows signs of life. The sordid men and women flee. The rosy light from Fujiyama spreads over the sky. Warmth and light come once more. Iris regains consciousness. Spirit voices whisper of earthly existence and its selfish aspirations typified by the knavery of Kyoto, the lust of Osaka, the desire of Iris’s father, Il Cieco, for the comforts of life through her ministrations.
Enough strength comes back to her for her to acclaim the sanctity of the sun. In its warmth and light — the expression of Nature’s love — she sinks, as if to be absorbed by Nature, into the blossoming field that spreads about her. Again, as in the beginning, there is the choired tribute to warmth, light, love — the sun!
Partly sordid, partly ethereal in its exposition, the significance of this story has escaped Mascagni, save in the climax of the opening allegory of the work. Elsewhere he employs instruments associated by us with Oriental music, but the spirit of the Orient is lacking. In a score requiring subtlety of invention, skill in instrumentation, and, in general, the gift for poetic expression in music, these qualities are not. The scene of the mousmés in the first act with iris’s song to the flowers of her garden, “In pure stille”; the vague, yet unmistakable hum of Japanese melody in the opening of Act II; and her narrative in the scene with Osaka in the same act, “Un di al tempio” (One day at the temple) — these, with the hymn to the sun, are about the only passages that require mention.