Before Madama Butterfly there was Iris, the tale of a young and exploited Japanese girl. The opera was written by Pietro Mascagni, the king of verismo.
Mascagni is the composer of the quintessential verismo masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana. Cavalleria was his first opera, written when he was 26 years old, and when it premiered in May of 1890 it transformed Italian opera forever. Mascagni was left with the task of writing a follow-up.
He wrote 15 operas, but none have reached the popularity of Cavalleria. Iris was his seventh opera and came eight years after Cavalleria. Mascagni was cranking them out at about one per year in the 1890s.
Iris caught my attention because of its June 2016 production by Holland Park Opera in London. According to the company website, Iris was produced in their second season, 1997. It was the first production of the opera in over 90 years and was such a success that they rescheduled it for the next season as well.
Because we have the magical oracle of YouTube, there is a complete recording available to hear right here and now. Jonas Kaufmann also included an aria from Iris on his Verismo Arias album.
The story of Iris is a thinly veiled critique of the powers-that-be destroying the naive nature-loving Iris. The villains in the tale are named Osaka and Kyoto. Osaka was the seat of power before Yedho, aka Tokyo, came to prominence and the Emperor of Japan has always sat at Kyoto.
The opera Iris
1996 Dessi Cura
The two conspire to kidnap Iris with the idea that Osaka would seduce her. When he fails he gives the girl over to his brothel keeper Kyoto. That Kyoto is a pimp of sorts is connected to the city of Kyoto being the home of the greatest Geisha’s in Japan.
Kyoto strips Iris and leaves her isolated on a balcony. Her father discovers her, misunderstands the situation, and curses her. Iris flings herself into the abyss.
The similarity to Madama Butterfly are significant even though they are unrelated and the musical style of Iris is on a much grander scale with massive choruses at the beginning and end of the opera. Iris is a great opera that fans of verismo will enjoy.