Early on in Pietro Mascagni’s Iris (1898), the title character observes a puppet show from within the safe vantage point of her father’s garden. “What a pitiful story!” she cries: “I feel within my heart a hand that touches and oppresses me”. An innocent Japanese girl – one who dreams her own dolls can be taunted by monsters – she is entirely unaware that the show she is witnessing is in fact an elaborate ruse to enable her kidnapping. Nor does she foresee that the puppets’ story of a painful conflict between father and daughter – and the bizarre figures of Beauty, Death and the Vampire who dance before her – will all have eerie parallels with her own tragedy. Iris’s total involvement with the drama before her is in fact integral to the kidnapping plan. Beguiled by the theatre of the puppets, she moves away from her secluded family home and enters into the drama around her, becoming surrounded by samurai warriors and geishas who eventually take her hostage. Naive to a fault, Iris’s lack of critical distance or urbane sophistication make her an easy target for a practiced seducer, and effectively turn the title character into a human puppet to be manipulated by the men around her.

Iris might on the surface, then, offer a cautionary tale about the risks of being swept up in the drama before you: a reminder that the suspension of disbelief should only be taken so far. Yet such audience identification and affective power had been central to the values and aesthetics of Italian opera throughout the nineteenth century, and had become only more important with the emergence of the verismo movement associated with Mascagni himself from the 1890s onwards. Typically dated from the premiere of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in 1890, the movement might not have gained its “realist” tag until a number of years later, but by the time the composer turned his hand to Iris the musical values of his earlier work had become a familiar part of the contemporary Italian operatic world: declamatory vocal lines, brusque harmonies and intense passions that provoked audiences to sympathetic involvement regardless of an opera’s exotic setting. Considered in that light, both Iris the opera and Iris the character conform to one popular image of fin-de-siècle Italian opera: highly selfconscious about their place within a tradition, and prone to express (and arouse) desires that exceed an ordinary evening at the theatre.

Yet such a view only tells one part of the story. What about Osaka and Kyoto, the Don Giovanni and Leporello of Iris’s dramatic universe, who kidnap and humiliate the title character and exude a worldly confidence embodied in their names? Although the story of an innocent girl’s seduction had an (ig)noble pedigree throughout Italian operatic history – most notably in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), the resounding cries of “Mia Figlia!” from which are echoed by Il Cieco in the conclusion of Iris’s first act – the appearance of these cynical characters crystallises something new and striking in Italian opera: a cosmopolitan self-confidence evident in Iris’s exotic harmonies and decadent plot, both of which demonstrate the composer’s awareness of artistic trends that were circulating throughout Europe by the late-nineteenth century. Pitting timeless innocence against metropolitan cunning, Iris can be interpreted as a particularly apposite – if morally ambiguous – investigation into the tensions of Italian musical modernity, as time-honoured conventions meet urban fashions.

The composition of Iris itself emerged from a highly characteristic feature of nineteenth century musical life: a publishing war. Lured by the Sonzogno publishing house away from an already signed contract with their rivals Ricordi, Mascagni nevertheless owed the latter an opera to replace the promised Guglielmo Ratcliff, which had premiered in 1895 with mixed success. Overwhelmed with competing deadlines and recently appointed head of the Pesaro conservatoire, the composer took a whole year to agree to librettist Luigi Illica’s suggestion of a work on a Japanese theme: a setting without precedent in the Italian canon, but which Illica believed would refresh and transform the conventions of operatic melodrama. By this stage the author had already written libretti for works such as Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally (1892) and Giacomo Puccini’s notoriously multi-authored Manon Lescaut (1893), and would soon go on to write the texts for Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier (1896) and several of Puccini’s most frequently performed works (including the later, Japanese-inspired Madama Butterfly). Far from being a subservient figure, therefore, Illica was a major player in the operatic industry and integral to Iris’s creative development, and he shared with Mascagni a fascination for new international styles. In proposing a Japanese setting for their collaboration, however, Illica displayed not merely a fancy for the Orient, but also a keen awareness of what was happening north of the Alps.

The craze for Japanese art that emerged amongst the western elite in the 1870s followed the official end of Japanese isolation in 1868, a transition highlighted by the presence of a Japanese pavilion at the 1867 World Fair in Paris. By the 1890s the fashion for Japanese culture was still going strong and had already produced one substantial operatic work within the French speaking world: André Messager’s Madame Chrysanthème (1893), based upon Pierre Loti’s popular (and widely translated) 1887 novel, and with which Illica was undoubtedly familiar. The sinuous lines and decorative surfaces of Japanese art proved highly influential in the development of Art Nouveau, an artistic style which quickly entered the Italian visual imagination and left its imprint on the many posters produced on behalf of the Ricordi firm. Illica’s choice of a Japanese theme thus reflected the broader dissemination of French culture into Italy by the 1890s, which certainly also included Joris-Karl Husmann’s 1884 decadent novel À Rebours (Against Nature), that features episodes of cynical seduction highly similar to Osaka and Iris’s encounters. Although Illica claimed to have based the opera on a Japanese tale, most scholars agree that the story is either Illica’s own invention or one of the many fake tales that travelled throughout Europe sold as authentic Japanese literature. What is far more certain is that Mascagni enthusiastically familiarised himself with Japanese music once he had agreed to Illica’s proposal, declaring himself “ingiapponesato” (Japanified) after an intense period of study (as noted by biographer Alan Mallach). Indeed, while Iris does not indulge in the kind of direct musical quotation that characterises Puccini’s later oriental operas, it is nevertheless striking how much more chromatic and harmonically adventurous Iris is than Mascagni’s earlier works, indicating a composer able to manipulate a wide-ranging harmonic vocabulary to characterise different personalities and locales.

Episodes of explicit musical imitation of Japanese culture are comparatively rare in Iris. The thrumming open-fifths and whistling flute which precede the puppet scene certainly evoke a number of familiar oriental fantasies, while the humming scene that opens the second act similarly exploits an unusual combination of timbres – harp, flute, violin, and a wordless soprano voice – to depict a languorous and otherworldly environment (a device that surely also influenced a similar scene in Madama Butterfly). The opening to the third act is even more radical by the standards of 1890s Italian opera, using whole-tone scales that echo Debussy’s then- recent experiments, to conjure up a world in which distinctions between life and death, tonality and atonality are bewilderingly porous, and a search for jewellery in a swamp can just as easily uncover a decomposing corpse. Yet even where Mascagni’s musical distinctions are more covert – where Japanese colourings are less obviously highlighted – the composer draws upon a range of musical  tropes to shape an audience’s understanding of the unfolding drama. The aria “Apri la tua finestra” (“Open your window”) with which Osaka (in the guise of Jor) seeks to seduce Dhia during the puppet show inevitably evokes memories of Don Giovanni’s “Deh vieni alla’finestra”; but in its lilting Siciliana rhythm it is equally reminiscent of the offstage aria with which Turiddu begins Cavalleria rusticana. A familiar romantic device, the window-side serenade features some of the most straightforwardly melodious, traditionally lyrical vocal lines in the opera, yet is rendered strange by the alienating device of a “play within a play” and the discrete number of weirdly chromatic  harmonies which encircle the vocal line in the orchestra, hinting at the darker currents beneath an apparently innocent gesture. Such harmonic invention is even more pronounced in Iris’s justly famous Act 2 aria “Un di, ero piccina”, in which she describes a screen she witnessed at the temple as a child. A depiction of a giant monster destroying a woman, the screen reveals the destructive powers of Pleasure and Death, the deadly duo which Iris will soon encounter first-hand at the brothel. Iris’s rapidly moving, syllabic vocal line is set to a repetitive orchestral figure that provides a springboard for the self-consciously “ancient”, modal harmonies that characterise her aria. While Iris’s earliest vocal interjections in the opera indulge in the kind of hyper-delicate, high-lying melismatic writing that would also characterise Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San, Iris’s vocal personality here is  at once fiercely dramatic and explicitly archaic, as she rails against the worldy forces that will soon consume her in a musical language a long way from bel canto opera.

For many early audience members, however, the most powerful musical moment in the drama did not belong to any of the principal characters, but was instead the opening “Hymn to the Sun”, that depicts the transition from night into day using the full range of possible orchestral colours and that culminates in the triumphant entry of the chorus declaring “I am life!”

The powerful chorale theme and ethereal string writing indicate a composer who knew his Wagner well, and above all his Tannhauser, a work similarly preoccupied with the temptations of the flesh, and that likewise concludes with a sense of exultation at overcoming pleasure and achieving transcendental redemption. The comparison with Tannhauser, however, perhaps highlights one of the difficulties that early audiences had with Mascagni’s work and which may begin to explain why it has not achieved the repertory status of other verismo works.

Throughout it’s first two acts, Iris presents the audience with a powerful set of overlapping conflicts between antique innocence on the one hand – embodied in the novel yet modishly otherworldly vocal writing of Iris – and on the other the suave urban dilettante Osaka, whose passionate music is closer to the conventions of Italian opera and yet who can manipulate these devices in a self-consciously modern manner. By the end of the opera, however, this meeting of opposites does not resolve into a new social order, nor does Iris manage successfully to defeat the advances of the predatory Osaka. Publicly humiliated, she chooses to throw herself into the pit reserved for fallen geishas, but even then lacks the kind of final heroic aria that imbue Manon Lescaut or Butterfly with strength in their last moments of suffering. Iris is instead haunted by the voices of men who have abused her, and she finally exults in the return of the opening chorus as she dies embraced by the sun. While musically glorious, Iris’s passive acceptance of a supposedly natural order – and the collapse of her individual voice into the chorus – both have uncomfortable parallels with Mascagni’s later fascist affiliations, and the emphatically tonal colouring of the final moments abandons Japonaiserie in favour of old-fashioned, imperious hymn writing. The meeting of musical and social worlds, it seems, is discarded in favour of a patriarchal “universal” order as Iris is elevated up towards the sun.

The early performance history of Iris is nevertheless an object lesson in fin-de-siecle cosmopolitanism. Following its premiere in Rome in 1898, it soon appeared in Milan and by 1903 had already been heard in Buenos Aires, Barcelona, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Cairo. London had to wait until 1919 to encounter the work and the opera then languished unperformed in the UK for many years until Opera Holland Park’s landmark 1997 production introduced it to a new generation. Long overlooked in favour of Puccini’s own Japanese fantasy, Iris’s return to the stage provides an opportunity to re-enter a world in which fantasies of the future and past are deeply intertwined, and the conventions of Italian opera are creatively reflected upon and re-imagined. Rather than being Madama Butterfly’s poor relation, in fact, Iris may instead remind us of the many operatic flowers that can blossom in the tension between East and West.

Originally printed in Opera Holland Park’s 2016 Season Programme Magazine