an analysis by Daniele Godor





"'But is all my work known?' This was a question regularly recurring in Mascagni's grief-stricken outbursts.  When 'nailed by the critics to the vindictiveness of Santuzza and Alfio' – to quote his own words –, he rejected the judgement that had gradually become a common opinion: that he had reached his full development with Cavalleria rusticana."[1] Mario Morini, the author of the excellent essay on Mascagni's Iris, from which this excerpt is taken, was absolutely right. Mascagni is a composer, who is, at least in the awareness of the average opera listener, indeed reduced to his first big success – a success Mascagni never managed to live up to. The fifteen operas that followed the Sicilian tale of rustic chivalry were all outshone by the splendidness of the debut feature: L'amico Fritz (1891), I Rantzau (1892), Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895), Silvano (1895), Zanetto (1896), Iris (1898), Le maschere (1901), Amica (1905), Isabeau (1911), Parisina (1913), Lodoletta (1917), (1919), Il piccolo Marat (1921), Pinotta (1932) and Nerone (1935).


Mascagni's choice of libretti shows that he did not intend to continue writing music in the veristic vein. The diversity of the subjects rather makes one assume that Mascagni could have been in search of his own peculiar style. As opposed to Puccini, who had a foible for romantic love stories against the background of more or less exotic settings, and unlike Wagner, who attended to subjects inspired by ancient German sagas, Mascagni does not seem to have found the thread. A veristic novel by Verga inspired Cavalleria rusticana, Guglielmo Ratcliff was an adaptation of an original piece by Heinrich Heine, Iris rose from the wake of the decadent fin-de-siècle-literature, Parisina resulted from a fructuous collaboration with Gabriele D'Annunzio and was an operetta. Il piccolo Marat dealt, like Giordano's Andrea Chénier, with the French Revolution, while Nerone was perceived as an homage to Benito Mussolini and a rather meagre copy of the opera with same title by Arrigo Boito.


The works are poles apart also from a musical point of view. Cavalleria is considered to be the successful birth of Italian verismo, while Ratcliff suffers from the stiff measure of the libretto: the dactyls, which were consequently used by Heine and the translator Andrea Maffei, made a free musical development almost impossible – the music sounds as stiff as the text. Iris was in contrast to Ratcliff an opera with a rather short libretto, a libretto à la mode, sultry, decadent and exotic – something that strongly influenced the music. Parisina contained very conservative elements, choral pieces which sound like madrigals from the 16th century – expression of Mascagni's sympathy for the reactionary Italian movement, which fought for the tradition of imitatio  ("neomadrigalism") and was influential during the 1910s and 1920s. How far the imitation of old, "genuine" Italian masters went, can be heard in some of the works of Malipiero (Le stagioni Italiche), Pizzetti (Requiem or the D'Annunzio-cycle Sogni di terre lontane) or Respighi (Concerto gregoriano for violin and orchestra or the cycle Vetrate di chiesa for piano). Il piccolo Marat, one of Mascagni's most difficult operas, is by no means a "modern" or "atonal" work, but contains only very few melodies and lots of sprechgesang. A bigger contrast to the melodious Cavalleria is almost unthinkable.


But is there really no thread, no link between Mascagni's works from Cavalleria to Nerone? Was the public, which called for another Cavalleria, right when they said that they had waited in vain? The answer is no. A characteristic Mascagni sound can be heard in all of his works, and the tragic failure of many of his later works reminds a little bit of the case of Arnold Schönberg and his Verklärte Nacht, one of his first and most often performed compositions. "When I am asked why I no longer compose as I did when I wrote Verklärte Nacht, I generally reply that I do still compose in the same way, but it's not my fault if people do not realise it", Schönberg replied in 1927.[2] Sure enough: in Il piccolo Marat and Nerone Mascagni tried to break new grounds by underdosing the melodious character of the music. But just these operas demonstrate better than any other that it was the melody that was Mascagni's greatest gift: the only consumable extract from Il piccolo Marat is the duet Va nella tua stanzetta, a surprisingly melodious island amidst an ocean of recitativi, sprechgesang and leitmotifs. The same applies to Nerone, where we can find a beautiful serenade and a lovely duet, surrounded by music which first of all seems to reflect the nervousness and neurosis of the main character. These "melodious islands" give an account of what Mascagni really was, what we can hear is a small rest of the gold dust that enthused in Cavalleria rusticana. 


Why did Mascagni partly abandon the principle of the melody? Because it seemed old-fashioned after the death of Puccini? Certainly not, the use of melody in Il piccolo Marat and Nerone provides impressive counter-examples: the music flows in a passionate cantabile, just the way it did in Cavalleria.  Signs of any "modernisation" of melody are not evident. Mascagni's music seems to be strictly divided in "melody" on one side and "non-melody" on the other, just like Benedetto Croce divided literature in "poesia" and "non-poesia". But Mascagni's "melody", his "poetry" did not alter with the years; while his "non-melody", his prose, improved and tended to oust the poetry in his late works.

It seems more probable that Mascagni tried to strike new paths because of the disappointments he had with all the strictly melodious, poetic and non-prosaic works that had followed Cavalleria rusticana. Mascagni never managed to link to the density of melody and the richness of musical invention that he had presented in Cavalleria rusticana. After a long history of failures he might have felt that his poetry had become noneffective and that he should try to write in prose instead. But deserve his other operas really to be forgotten, or asked the other way round: must we know all of Mascagni's works? The answer is again no. Do works like Giordano's Madame Sans-Gêne (1915) and Cena delle beffe (1924) deserve as much attention as his stroke of genius, Andrea Chénier? What about Leoncavallo's Zazà (1900) and Maja (1910) or Ponchielli's Lina (1877)? Maybe not. And the same applies to many works of Mascagni, which may be of interest for the musicologist, but not likewise attractive for the average operagoer.


Many of Mascagni's works don't have the same quality as Cavalleria rusticana and so justifiably stay in the background. But many does not mean all – and one work that has been treated inequitably and has not been given the attention it definitely would have deserved is Iris.




The genesis of Iris took four years. In 1894, Luigi Illica, who had written the libretti Il vassallo di Szigeth (with Francesco Pozza) for Smareglia  (1884), La Wally for Catalani (1889), Cristoforo Colombo for Franchetti (1889), Manon Lescaut (with Domenico Oliva) for Puccini (1893), Cornelius Schut for Smareglia (1893) and La martire for Samaras (1894), mentioned a "Japanese subject", a legend entitled L'innamorata dei fiori (The flower lover). Japan was in great vogue in Italy since Gabriele D'Annunzio, Italy's leading poet, aesthete and arbiter elegantiarium, had introduced the so-called giapponismo to the high society in Rome. "Japan (…) expressed its rhythms and floral conceits in precious ornamentation on multicoloured silks, panels, prints, fans and bibelots: things that enchanted the ladies of the Roman aristocracy when D'Annunzio took them on visits to the 'oriental' shops in Via Condotti" (Morini).


Gabriele D'Annunzio


Brocades, oriental carpets, peacock feathers, feather pillows, the colours red and purple, bric-à-brac, a general abundance of decors, ornaments and patterns, symbols and a preference for pre-Raphaelite women with heavy, long red hair, long throats and languishing but passionate miens characterised furthermore the taste of the fin-de-siècle. The fin-de-siècle-movement and its orientalism were undoubtedly a reaction against the "proletarian" realism and naturalism and the ugliness of industrialisation – and therewith a movement against the verism that was constitutive of Cavalleria rusticana. Orientalism had, just as the fin-de-siècle-movement, originally come from France, where it was widely spread not only in literature but also in musical works. It soon became a taste of international quality, a fact of which the works of Messager (Madame Chrisanthème, 1893), Gilbert & Sullivan (The Mikado or The town of Titipu, 1885) and Jones (Geisha 1896) bear witness. And Iris was about to become the first Italian opera against the background of a Japanese setting.[3]


Illica did not have Mascagni in mind when he wrote the libretto inspired by L'innamorata dei fiori. He thought that Alberto Franchetti (Cristoforo Colombo, 1892) would be the only composer who could write the music for the Japanese legend. But Franchetti was not interested and rejected the libretto because he was, as he said himself, unable to "hear the music" for the libretto. He strangely enough said the same about Illica's Tosca and Andrea Chénier – also those libretti had originally been written for Franchetti who rejected them for the same reason.[4] But Illica kept working on the libretto, modified the name of the main character from Aloe into Miosotis, and finally, into Iris. Illica was a famous author in his time, and he had not only made a name as successful librettist. He had published a book of poetry (Farfalle – Effetti di luce, 1888) and a series of plays, which were regularly performed by the most famous companies: I Narbonnerie-Latour (1883), Il conte Marcello Bernieri (1883), La signora Leo Pascal (1884), Henrik Arpad Tekeli (1884, Gli ibridi (1886) and many others.


Thus Illica was a librettist with high artistic aspirations. He used Franchetti's refusal as an opportunity, refined the text and weaved in elements of the literary fashion of his time. At the same time he experimented with an approach new to the history of the Italian libretto: the elimination of the old eloquence. The libretto should be shorter, fewer words, higher density, more poetry, a condensate instead of eloquence. Carlo Mascaretti, a contemporary of Illica and a severe critic with the most refined taste, wrote to the librettist:



"You have so much accentuated the new path you have sketched with your librettos that I feel this Iris really constitutes a whole evolution for such kind of compositions. (…) Fewer words for music than in former librettos, but a greater abundance of ideas and, more particularly, of poetry."[5]



It was not before March 1896 that Illica handed the libretto over to Mascagni, who was, in contrast to Franchetti, at once hooked. Also Mascagni was in search of an "idea for a new opera. New forms open up, as it were, a new horizon, a kind of new expression."[6] And under the aegis of Giulio Ricordi, Mascagni and Illica signed up on March 23rd, 1896.


Mascagni started the work on Iris with great drive and fervour, studying Japanese music and instruments. In August 1896, Illica wrote to Ricordi: "He works seriously and wants to make a serious work. This is a new Mascagni!"[7] In October 1896, Mascagni wrote to Illica: "For Iris I have many, far too many ideas, but I want to rend all of them. I need to work calmly and methodically. I need to concentrate now: I am chasing precious threads I do not want to lose from sight".[8] And in September 1896: "Dear Illica, (…) I am still studying Japanese harmony and I think that the result will be a work of great originality. Even better: the music and the libretto will compete with each other when it comes to originality. The critics will not understand anything and hence write good critics."[9]


Iris first saw the light of the stage on the 22nd of November 1898 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, with H. Darclée as Iris, De Lucia as Osaka, Caruson as Kyoto, Tisci-Rubini as the blind father. The composer himself conducted the performance. The opera was well received and played for another nine times at the Teatro Costanzi.





The following synopsis is an excerpt from a longer article by Alma Dalma and was published in the Cosmopolitan magazine in 1897:


"Briefly, the plot of 'Iris' is as follows: Iris [soprano] is an innocent young Japanese maiden who lives with her old blind father [bass]. She does not know the huge world, or its passions and its weaknesses. To her, the whole of life is one long dream of goodness and song and happiness. She sings to the sun and sings to her doll. In this pearl of a child her father forgets his affliction, and the two are absolutely devoted to one another. A very pretty scene occurs between father and daughter.

The hero, a rich young Japanese prince [Osaka, tenor], whose admiration for the beautiful is a ruling passion, sees the girl and hears her sing. His passion and love are awakened, and the idea of securing possession of her dominates his mind. By the villainy of his satellite [Kyoto, baritone], he succeeds in stealing her during the poor blind father's absence. This scene is a most dramatic one. In this act, Iris has a song that is sure to become as famous as the Intermezzo, for beauty. The tenor and the father also have splendid opportunities. The scene ends as the father enters the empty home and calls vainly for his lost child.


The second act is replete with brilliancy and colour. The scene is laid in the gayest part of Tokyo. The teahouses are brilliantly illuminated, the sound of the samisen and koto is heard, pretty geishas go hither and thither, guests are transported to and from in their picturesque jinrikishas, and there is lively action throughout. Hither Iris has been brought by the wicked prince. Yet she is still innocent, and firmly believes that the gay world she sees for the first time is the paradise of which her father has often told her.

Confident that a feature of residence in paradise is the fact that an inhabitant is gifted with the power to accomplish anything desired, Iris tries to paint. Alas! the colors will not blend; the result is a daub; and disappointment follows. She next tries to play the samisen, but all is discord. At last, in an outburst of childish fury, she dashes her playthings to the floor and destroys the samisen, and curses in an artless Japanese way. At this juncture the father, who has been groping his way all over Tokio in search of Iris, enters and hears her angry words, and, convinced that all, even honor, is lost to her, condemns, disowns and discards her. Here again the finale is a grand climax of harmony. All the fire and passion and melody that Mascagni so well knows how to employ are invoked with great effect.


The play ends with the finding in the early morning of a jewel, by some Japanese ragpickers. Searching further, they find the body of Iris – a dramatic and unusual ending, surely, for an opera.


During the second act there is an excellent comic song for the tenor and a magnificent duet for Iris and the prince. Iris is written in three acts, or perhaps it would be more correct to say a prologue and two acts. Several competent critics, who have read the libretto and heard the music at a private hearing in Cerignola, Italy, declare that success for Iris is a foregone conclusion. Mascagni recently wrote me: 'The book is splendid. If my music pleases, we shall have an enormous success.'"



Even though Alma Dalma's synopsis contains a couple of odd views I found it interesting as historical source. Beyond, it's a sufficient ground orientation for the following analysis.


The genesis of the protagonist's name Iris is very interesting and indicates that Iris could be more than just a coincidental name. First, Illica called the girl Aloe, then he went over to Miosotis. Both are flowers, a fact that is not so strange, given that the plot is about a "flower lover". Two other aspects are of greater interest: the symbolic meaning of each of the flowers and the symbol that lies within the fact that the girl who loves flowers actually has a flower's name. Aloe is associated with eternal youth, while Miosotis stands for pure love. Iris again is a symbolic message – what message? The message of pure, innocent, youthful love? Iris does most probably not only have a flower's name because she loves flowers. That she has it could mean that Iris possesses the qualities of a flower: freshness, pureness, innocence maybe, and fragility. But over all it symbolises her bond with nature. She is a part of nature, the bond is almost a fusion, a Pandean fusion of man and nature.



The Pandean worldview was widely spread around the turn of the century and a natural reaction against the automation of life and, on the other side, the cult of dissolving the own self, to break up with it, and to resurge as a part of nature.

The Iris was, beside that, one of the most popular flowers of the time, and it has been used as pattern and decor on countless objects of arts and craft.


The names of her counter-parts are, absurdly enough, names of big Japanese cities: Osaka and Kyoto. While it is possible to have Osaka as a family name, it is completely impossible to be called Kyoto. But the message is clear: Here we have two representatives of the modern civilisation, which contrast strongly with the Pandean flower girl.[10]


The libretto starts with a long introduction by a narrator, who does not only describe the opening scene, but also comments the places and events he gives account of. He is both omniscient narrator and authorial voice. The narrator describes the sunrise, personifying the nature according to the Pandean principle:



"The night leaves the sky. (...) The flowers in Iris' small garden lift their heads like curious children and turn towards east. (...) O light, soul of the world! (...) The morning triumphed! (...) The light is the idiom of the eternal."



The idiom of the eternal ones, the idiom of God? Who would be able to decode it? The almighty poet can! Here comes what the sun, the light, the idiom of God has to say:



THE SUN: "It's me, it's me, the life! The infinite beauty, the light and the heat. Love, ye things, I say! I am the old and new God, love, I am the love. (…) I descend to you, little girl, just as I descend to Kings! (…) Eternal poetry, heat, light, love!"



The narrator adds:


"The girl, which listens to the language of the Sun and transforms it into kindness, is Iris. (…) The sunshine and the soul of the girl unify heaven and earth; the infinity of space is won."



What we have here is a Pandean concept on several levels. Iris is a part of the world and can communicate with the sun, translate its language. The narrator/poet, who comments the dialogue, decodes the divine language as well, which is not only Pandean but also Orphic. The poet is the translator of the divine language; he makes the sun sing in a language we can understand! By Pandean participation in the world process (the rising sun for example), the artist (poet, narrator) becomes Orphic, identifying himself with the limitless variety of nature and becoming its direct expression. Nature is anthropomorphised and humans naturalised.

This was, as Jürgen Maehder pointed out, a new feature in the history of the Italian opera.


Then the actual action begins. Iris, alone in the garden speaks to the flowers and the sun. She thanks the sun for having chased away the night's nightmares. When her blind father enters the scene and asks her to whom she is talking, she replies with implicitness: "With the Sun, o my father!"


Iris and her father are secretly observed by Osaka and Kyoto, who intend to abduct Iris into the Yoshiwara, a "pleasure quarter" and red light district in Edo (Tokyo).[11] Osaka is attracted by the girl's beauty, and both scent a business that pays. They decide to stage a puppet theatre in order to confuse the blind father, bedazzle the naive girl and abduct her.



The gates of Yoshiwara[12]


The following scenes are a musical firework of rare intensity. The richness of the musical ideas of Mascagni offers unequalled opportunities. First a group of laundresses enter the scene, illustrated by a dance of rare beauty. They're on their way down to the river and praise the full moon, which makes the water "calm and mild". A short scene in the garden, where Iris sings a song to the flowers while her father speaks his prayer, follows their dance. The simple melody Iris sings with her light soprano contrasts beautifully to the sprechgesang of her father, who is a basso profondo. Suddenly they hear the sound of instruments, "sounds of samisen, gongs, drumbeats and koliu": "It's the comedians, it's the geishas!"


Monitored by Kyoto, the geishas and Osaka put on a moving play, of which Iris is at once fascinated. The play itself is a caricature of the scene in the garden which Osaka and Kyoto had observed earlier: An unhappy girl ("Dhia") is mistreated by her father ("Il padre", played by Kyoto) and finally saved by "Jor", the "Son of the Sun" (played by Osaka). The play hits its peak with the beautiful and tender aria Apri la tua finestra, also know as Serenata di Jor, the most famous piece of the whole opera:



JOR FIGLIO DEL SOLE (Osaka)                                      JOR, SON OF THE SUN (Osaka)

Apri la tua finestra! – Jor son io                                   Open your window, it's me, Jor,

che vengo al tuo chiamar, povera Dhia!                       who responds to your call, poor Dhia!

Apri la tua finestra al raggio mio!                                Open your window for my rays!

Apri il tuo cor a mia calda malìa!                                 Open you heart for my ardent desire!

Jor ha ascoltata, o Dhia, la tua preghiera!                   Jor answers your prayer, o Dhia!

Apri l'anima tua, fanciulla, al Sole!                              Open your soul for the Sun, dear girl!

Apri l'anima tua alle mie parole!                                  Open your soul for my words!

Apri il tuo cuore a me, fanciulla, e spera!                     Open your heart for me, dear girl, and hope!

Tu vuoi morir? – Morire io ti farò,                                You want to die? – I'll make you die,

ma ti farò morir dal Sol baciata,                                   but make you die kissed by the Sun

poscia al paese eterno ti trarrò                                     then I'll bring you into the eternal realm

ove, o fanciulla, tu sarai amata!                                    where you, dear girl, are going to be loved!



The name Osaka adopts during the play is a matter of particular interest. He calls himself Jor, the son of the sun. It's not astonishing that Osaka uses the surname Son of the sun: He has observed Iris in the garden and knows about her affection for the sun. But what kind of name is Jor? In the rune alphabet of the old Futhark we can find the rune "M", which has the name Jor. Its meaning is mystery and secret. Every rune of the old Futhark has a dedicated number. Jor's number is 18. If we consult the Tarot and its mysticism of numbers, a surprising discovery can be made: card number 18 in the classical Tarot deck is "The Moon", the diametrically opposed counterpart of the sun! The same moon that laundresses have anticipated in their song just a few lines earlier.




The Tarot game was well known in Italy since the Middle Ages under the name Tarocchi, and its rich symbolism was a source of inspiration for Renaissance art and for modern Italian literature.[13] What does the card stand for? It stands for danger, insincerity, false friends, double dealing, false pretends, falling into a trap. In the poetry of the turn of the century, the moon is the incarnation of the threatening and fatal evil, devilish and demoniac, man's most dangerous enemy par excellence, "the cold moon, who drops her poison deeply in his blood/like an experienced doctor" (Georg Heym).[14] In most of the old heathen religions we can find similar associations.


As to the protagonists the result of the present analysis can be summarised in the following antithetic structure:



IRIS: young and innocent girl. The name Iris stands                  OSAKA: stands for the modern town

               for nature, whilst the flower was a popular                                   and civilisation. He works at the

               symbol around 1900.                                                                         Yoshiwara, desires Iris and intends

                               Iris stands for the sun and can communicate                                to abduct her. He is symbolised by

with nature.                                                                                        the moon.


KYOTO: is as unsympathetic as Osaka.

                                                                                                                             Also Kyoto stands for a negatively

                                                                                                                             perceived civilisation. Iris is nothing

to him but an object he can sell with profit.



What about the blind father? He lets Iris watch the play but warns her steadily: "They're vagabonds", "the whole play is falsehood" etc. And as he finally asks Iris for her opinion, she is already gone, abducted by Osaka and Kyoto. In black despair the father cries for Iris, but the only ones who answer him are passers-by. "Your house is empty", they say, "Iris is not here!" Suddenly they find a sheet of paper and some money, both left by Osaka and Kyoto. The sheet of paper is a faked farewell letter, which the passers-by read for the blind father: "The money is for you. Your daughter went to Yoshiwara!" The father breaks down in despair and cries:



"I want to slap her and spit her in her face... and curse her! Iris! My life...! And then, and then..."



The whole scene is accompanied by one of the most intense and beautiful moments of music that Mascagni has ever written.


The rest of the libretto can be resumed in few words. Osaka and Kyoto abduct Iris to Yoshiwara, which is described by the narrator as a place "without light, without the harmony of the sun". Yoshiwara is Osaka's realm, it is night, and the moon shines brightly. Kyoto and Osaka watch the sleeping girl: "A cherry, ready to be picked and eaten."


As Iris awakes, Osaka tries to win her over with passionate words, illustrated by Mascagni by one of his finest and original melodies (Oh come al tuo sottile corpo). Iris still believes that Osaka is Jor, and Osaka does not do anything to disabuse her, on the contrary: "You still think that I am Jor, but this is not a play, this is real life. And in real life I am called… Lust!" But Osaka does not succeed: Iris can't think about anything else than going back to her small garden, the flowers, the sun and her father. Osaka, irritated by her stubbornness, gives up and leaves her to Kyoto, who puts her into a "transparent dress" and finally presents her on the market in order to exploit her youthful beauty. Kyoto puts her on display for the admiring populace, but suddenly her blind father appears. Iris, overjoyed, greets him: "Father, I am here, it's me, Iris, come here, here!" But her father, still in anger and unable to forgive, curses her. Blind with rage he stoops, grabs mud and throws it into the direction his daughter's voice came from: "Mud... on your face!... On your mouth!... In your eyes!" Iris, overwhelmed by so much anger, dives into a sewer hole in self-punishment.


One of the interesting features of act II is a play of words that again deals with symbols and myths. Iris, captured in Osaka's (the moon's) realm, succeeds – in spite of all the filth, lust, decadence and mud that is loaded onto her – in emerging as a symbol of beauty, innocence and pureness: she stays, although captured in the moon's realm, the sun she was in act I. Is it a coincidence that the constriction of the names Osaka and Iris results in Osiris and that Osiris, the Egyptian god of resurrection, is symbolised by a nocturnal sun?


The last act is another unicum in the history of opera. It's crack of dawn and ragpickers find the dying, hallucinating Iris. In the libretto the narrator comments the scene with the following words:



"And Iris' lips form for one last time the question, the big accuse against the world, the destiny or the divinity: why?…"



Neither Osaka, nor Kyoto nor her father answers her question. But Mascagni and Illica make us hear three phantom voices instead: "Osaka's egoism", "Kyoto's egoism" and "The blind father's egoism"! Let's hear what they have to say. Osaka's egoism:



"You die like the flower that dies for its odour. In my grim egoism, I'll now take elsewhere my phantasmal smile and song. That's life! Good bye!"



Kyoto's egoism:



"I wear the livery of the greatest of all kings: the lust! Now we are here. I am because of my inhuman meanness, you are because you are the victim of your own beauty. Why? I don't know. That's life! I go now!"



The blind father's egoism:



"Alas, who is going to light the fire in wintertime (...)? That's the thought that is the cause of my tears and that is the cause of my deepest sorrow. That's life! Farewell!"



Iris dies as the first sunrays touch her face. And the sun talks to Iris:



            "Iris, immortal Iris, come to me! Give your body to the flowers, your soul is mine."



The girl dies, as the narrator concludes, "with the great vision of immortality", and, just as Jor sings in his aria, kissed by the sun. The opera ends just the way it started: with the singing sun, a sun that chases away the night phantoms and closes the eyes of those who were broken down by the nocturnal powers.




The opera Iris has a clear moral message: The world, or more precisely: the part of the world presented in the opera, is ruled by powers which here are symbolised by the night, by the moon, by all things nocturnal. The nocturnal side, represented by Osaka, Kyoto and the blind father includes falsehood, decadence, lust, capitalistic exploitation, greed, indifference and egoism. The fact that characters that have names of big cities mainly represent this side makes one assume a general scepticism against modern civilisation.

Iris is innocent, pure and, what is of great importance, harmless and fragile like a flower. She is naive, wants everybody to feel good and has empathy with all those who are mistreated by others. That's why the play staged by Osaka and Kyoto is so striking. Iris is good, but the pure good has no chance in a world, which is dominated by Osakas and Kyotos.


What we have here is, of course, the ancient problem of Christianity: Why is there so much evil (Iris asks that question) and what can one do against it? I don't even try to presume giving an answer, but the answer that Mascagni and Illica give is pessimistic. Jesus Christ's martyrdom had an effect on his contemporaries, and his doctrine has conquered big parts of the world. But Iris? She suffers and does not fight back (which is good), but nobody regrets her death. Everything and everybody, and that's what we see in act III, goes just back to normal.


Mascagni and Illica place the big question: why is the world as it is? But this is the terminal point, or to say it with he words of Eugenio Montale: "The error of nature, the dead point of the world, the ring that does not hold, the clew that has to be untangled and that would lead us in the middle of a truth."[15] Another Italian poet and, like Montale, a contemporary of Mascagni and Illica, Giuseppe Ungaretti, wrote a poem that comes very close to the atmosphere created in the last act of Iris. I would like to conclude this essay with some excerpts. The poem has been written under the impressions of a battle during the First World War, where Ungaretti was a front soldier in the Italian army.


WHY?                                                                               PERCHÉ?


Some rest is needed                                                          Ha bisogno di qualche ristoro

by my dark and lost heart                                                 il mio buio cuore disperso


In the muddy trenches of stone                                         negli incastri fangosi dei sassi

like a blade of grass                                                         come un'erba di questa contrada

it wants to shiver slowly to the light.                                vuole tremare piano alla luce.


But I am nothing                                                               Ma io non sono

in the sling of time                                                             nella fionda del tempo

but a splint of the stone fragmented                                  che la scaglia dei sassi tarlati

by the improvised road                                                      dell'improvisata strada                   

of war.                                                                                di guerra.


Ever since                                                                          Da quando

he has watched into                                                           ha guardato nel viso

the immortal face of the world                                          immortale del mondo

this crazy one wanted to know                                           questo pazzo ha voluto sapere

fallen into the labyrinth                                                     cadendo nel labirinto

of his sorrowful heart                                                         del suo cuore crucciato.

(...)                                                                                      (...)


I watch the horizon                                                            Guardo l'orizzonte

poxed by craters.                                                                che si vaiola di crateri.


My heart wants to illuminate itself                                    Il mio cuore vuole illuminarsi

like in this night                                                                 come questa notte

at least with the shooting rockets.                                      almeno di zampilli di razzi.

(...)                                                                                      (...)


My poor heart                                                                     Il mio povero cuore

aghast                                                                                 sbigottito

at not knowing.                                                                   di non sapere. [16]







-                    Ghirardini, Gherardo: Invito all'ascolto di Mascagni, Invito all'ascolto, vol. 11.Milano 1988

-                    Maehder, J–rgen: Il primo esotismo giapponese sulla scena italiana – Iris di Luigi Illica e Pietro Mascagni. Rome 1996, pp. 79–93.

-                    Morini, Mario: Iris; booklet for the LP edition of Iris with M. Olivero, S. Puma and S. Meletti (Archivio RAI LAR 23)

-                    Morini, Mario (ed.): Pietro Mascagni. Milan 1964, p. 308

-                    Ostali, Pietro: Mascagni e l'Iris fra simbolismo e floreale. Milano 1989


Further reading:

-                    www.librettidopera.it/iris/iris.html (the complete libretto in typographical print)

[1] Morini, Mario: Iris; booklet for the LP edition of Iris with M. Olivero, S. Puma and S. Meletti (Archivio RAI LAR 23)

[2] Marc Vignal in the booklet for the LP Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht, Berg: Lyrische Suite, Boulez/NYPO (CBS 76305)

[3] cf. Jürgen Maehder's fine essay Il primo esotismo giapponese sulla scena italiana – Iris di Luigi Illica e Pietro Mascagni. Rome 1996, pp. 79-93.

[4] cf Maehder and Morini, cf. also Morini, Mario (ed.): Pietro Mascagni. Milan 1964, p. 308

[5] quoted in Morini

[6] ibid.

[7] Maehder

[8] Morini

[9] Maehder

[10] The symbol of the names becomes even stronger if one translates the name Kyoto literally: it means "capitol town".

[11] That kind of pleasure quarter existed in two other Japanese cities: Osaka and Kyoto. In Osaka it was called Shimmachi, in Kyoto Shimabara. The names of the two villains are most probably also chosen as a symbol for lust and the organization of lust and its satisfaction.

[12] pticture from http://pureland.blogspot.com/yoshiwaragate.jpg

[13] cf. the beautiful Tarot novel by Italo Calvino: The castle of crossed destinies. New York City, 1976

[14] Georg Heym: Die Schläfer; quoted in: Giese, Peter Christian: Lyrik des Expressionismus. Stuttgart 1993, p. 122

[15] Eugenio Montale: I limoni; see Montale, Eugenio: Ossi di seppia/Occasioni. München 1987, p. 22

[16] Giuseppe Ungaretti: Perchè?; see Ungaretti, Giuseppe: Vita d'un uomo, Vol. 1, München 1993

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