Until this week, I knew basically nothing about Mascagni's Iris but the title. For years, I owned a live recording from Rome on the BMG Ricordi label, showing José Cura in Kabuki whiteface clasping the limp Daniela Dessì in kimono, the title splashed out in red-lacquer brushstrokes. But the set never made it to the front of the queue, and its current whereabouts are unknown, as I was unhappy to discover on a recent search.
I had been reading up a bit on Iris in the wake of a rare revival of the opera at the Bard Music Festival. Reviewers and other sources revived dim recollections that Iris tells a very cruel story set in Japan and that it predates, by several year, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, with which it shares its librettist. What else came to mind? An aria popular with tenors in recital ("Apri la tua finestra!")—oh, and that the score opens and closes with a very lush hymn of the sun, which I had imagined as something in the ecstatic theosophist mode of Scriabin.
Verismo diva Magda Olivero.
No doubt about it, Iris is quite the hothouse bloom. Tending her blind father in pastoral seclusion, the doll-like heroine draws the eye of a roué from town, who arranges at great cost for her abduction to a brothel but quickly casts her aside in disgust at her sexual cluelessness. (The bad guys' names, I kid you not, are Osaka and Kyoto.) Poor Iris perishes literally in the gutter, her mouth stopped with filth flung by her father, yet redeemed in the embrace of the sun. For the great hymn is not sung to that celestial body, but by that celestial body, blazing in the aggregate voice of the chorus and orchestra. Here is "his" text in part.
Son Io! Son Io la Vita! Son la Beltà infinita,
la Luce ed il Calor.
Amate, o Cose! dico:
Sono il Dio novo e antico, son l'Amor! ...
Dei Mondi Io la Cagione;
dei Cieli Io la Ragione!
Uguale Io scendo ai Re,
sì come a te, mousmè!
Pietà è l'essenza mia,
eterna Poesia, Amor!
(It is I! I am Life! I am infinite Beauty, Light, and Warmth. Oh Created Things! Love one another, say I: I am the new God and the God of antiquity. I am Love! ... I am the Cause that brought Worlds into being, I am the Cause of the Heavens. I arise alike for kings and for thee, my child! Compassion is my essence, Poetry eternal, Love!)
So extravagant, and yet how familiar... Musical questions aside, the text strikes precisely the chord of ecstatic pantheistic kitsch familiar from a much better known verismo staple: Giordano's Andrea Chénier. You may recall the impromptu rhapsody with which the revolutionary French idealist counters the mockery of Maddalena di Coigny, the aristocratic flibbertigibbet who has tricked him into speaking of love.
Un dì all'azzurro spazio
e ai prati colmi di viole,
pioveva loro il sole,
e folgorava d'oro il mondo:
parea la terra un immane tesor,
e a lei serviva di scrigno il firmamento.
Su dalla terra a la mia fronte
veniva una carezza viva, un bacio.
Gridai vinto d'amor:
T'amo tu che mi baci,
divinamente bella, o patria mia!
E volli pien d'amore pregar!
(One day, I gazed into the azure depths of heaven, and at the meadows dense with violets. The sun rained down upon them, and the world flashed with gold. All earth seemed one immense treasure, cradled in the casket of the sky. From earth a living caress rose to my brow, a kiss. I cried out, overcome with love: Thou that kisseth me, I love thee, o my homeland! And brimming with love I wished to pray.)
Chénier's so-called Improvviso (his improv, why not?) still has a long way to go. In his exalted state, he entered a church, and what did he see? A priest on the take, deaf to the pleas of an old man faint with hunger. In the countryside, what did he find? A father cursing God at the sight of his starving children. Now, finally, Chénier rounds on Maddalena, whose angelic beauty first seemed to him to embody "la bellezza della vita," the very beauty of life itself.
O giovinetta bella,
d'un poeta non disprezzate il detto:
Udite! Non conoscete amor,
amor, divino dono, non lo schernir,
del mondo anima e vita è l'Amor!
(Oh, lovely demoiselle, scorn not the word of a poet. Mark what I say! You know not what love is—love, the gift of God, do not dismiss it. The soul, the life of the world is Love!)
We have by no means heard the last of such rhetoric. In her aria "La mamma morta" (They killed my mother), adrift in the nightmare of the Terror, Maddalena tells of a visitation by the voice of Love, speaking to her in human language through some seraphic harmony of the spheres. Is such intercession still credible today? Apparently yes. In Philadelphia, the film that won him his first Oscar, Tom Hanks translated Maddalena's text for Denzel Washington over the voice of Maria Callas on the phonograph, shaking audiences to the core. And in Andrea Chénier, there's still more to come. En route to the guillotine, Andrea and Maddalena will raise their voices in a hymn to the oceans, the heavens, the stars, and the dawn, welcoming death as the triumph of love, "il trionfo dell'amor!"
You need not drill deep into Italian operatic literature of the period to find nuggets from the same mother lode. I think of a striking line of Puccini's Des Grieux, in thrall to the capricious Manon Lescaut: "Nell' occhio tuo profondo io leggo il mio destino" (Deep in your eyes I read my fate). I think, too, of the sailors in the forgotten Franchetti's obscure Cristoforo Colombo, glimpsing the New World atremble on the horizon, aglow in the dawn—as they express it—of the day eternal. The aria "Ebben! Ne andrò lontana," which gives Catalani's La Wally its toehold on immortality, evokes the heroine's dissolution into the vast consciousness of the Alpine wilderness. I detect echoes also in La Bohème, as the penniless Rodolfo, with his "soul of a millionaire," rhapsodizes of his castles in air; and also in Tosca, as the condemned Cavardossi conjures up, in the dawn of a new day, the star shine he will never see again.
"Deep in your eyes I read my destiny." Grandiloquent librettist Luigi Illica.
For Madama Butterfly, as for other Puccini operas, Illica shares credit with Giuseppe Giacosa, whose role to was polish mere dialogue into elegant verse. Yet with no proof to offer, I have to believe it was Illica and none other who at the outset of the final paragraph of the love duet gave the doomed geisha this magical, unassuming couplet to sing:
Ah! dolce notte! quante stelle!
Non le vidi mai si belle!
("How lovely a night! How many stars! I've never seen them look more beautiful.")
Fine words are fine words, but, really, it's the thought that counts. As truly as the ecstatic Andrea Chenier, more truly than the spectral Iris, Cio-Cio San is on course to the very crest of the empyrean, in Illica's embrace, where souls merge with the infinite.
 I follow the libretto as published by the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard, grandiose capital letters and all, but have departed from Tim Shaindlin's parallel translation, for reasons of accuracy as well as nuance.