“LIGHT is the language of the eternal ones hear it !” proclaims the librettist of “Iris” in that portion of his book which is neither said nor sung nor played. And it is the sun that sings with divers voices after the curtain has risen on a nocturnal scene, and the orchestra has sought to depict the departure of the night, the break of day, the revivification of the flowers and the sunrise. As Byron sang of him, so Phoebus Apollo celebrates himself as “the god of life and poetry and light,” but does not stop there. He is also Infinite Beauty, Cause, Reason, Poetry, and Love. The music begins with an all but inaudible descending passage in the basses, answered by sweet concordant harmonies. A calm song tells of the first streaks of light ; wood-wind and harp add their voices ; a mellifluous hymn chants the stirring flowers, and leads into a rhythmically, more incisive, but still sustained, orchestral song, which bears upon its surface the choral proclamation of the sun : ” I am ! I am life ! I am Beauty infinite !” The flux and reflux of the instrumental surge grows in intensity, the music begins to glow with color and pulsate with eager life, and reaches a mighty sonority, gorged with the crash of a multitude of tamtams, cymbals, drums, and bells, at the climacteric reiteration of “Calore ! Luce ! Amor !” The piece is thrillingly effective, but as little operatic as the tintinnabulatory chant of the cherubim in the prologue of Boito’s “Mefistofele.”
And now allegory makes room for the drama. To the door of her cottage, embowered on the banks of a quiet stream, comes Iris. The peak of Fujiyama glows in the sunlight. Iris is fair and youthful and innocent. A dream has disturbed her. “Gorgons and Hydras and Chimaeras dire” had filled her garden and threatened her doll, which she had put to sleep under a rose-bush. But the sun’s rays burst forth and the monsters flee. She lifts her doll and moves its arms in mimic salutation to the sun. Osaka, a wealthy rake, and Kyoto, a pander, play spy on her actions, gloat on her loveliness and plot to steal her and carry her to the Yoshiwara. To this end they go to bring on a puppet show, that its diversion may enable them to steal her away without discovery. Women come down to the banks of the river and sing pretty metaphors as they wash their basketloads of muslins. Gradually the music of samisens, gongs, and drums approaches. Osaka and Kyoto have disguised themselves as travelling players, gathered together some geishas and musicians, and now set up a marionette theatre. Iris comforts her blind father, the only object of her love, besides her doll, and promises to remain at his side. The puppet play tells the story of a maiden who suffers abuse from a cruel father, who threatens to sell her to a merchant. Iris is much affected by the sorrows of the puppet. The voice of Jor, the son of the sun, is heard it is Osaka, singing without. The melody is the melody of Turridu’s Siciliano, but the words are a promise of a blissful, kissful death and there-after life everlasting. The puppet dies and with Jor dances off into Nirvana. Now three geishas, representing Beauty, Death, and the Vampire, be-gin a dance. Kyoto distracts the attention of the spectators while the dancers flaunt their skirts higher and wider until their folds conceal Iris, and Osaka’s hirelings seize her and bear her off toward the city. Kyoto places a letter and money at the cottage door for the blind father. Through a pedler and the woman he learns that his daughter is gone to be an inmate of the Yoshiwara. He implores the people who had been jeering *him to lead him thither, that he may spit in her face and curse her.
Iris is asleep upon a bed in the “Green House” of the district, which needs no description. A song, accompanied by the twanging of a samisen and the clanging of tamtams, is sung by three geishas. Kyoto brings in Osaka to admire her beauty, and sets a high price upon it. Osaka sends for jewels. Iris awakes and speculates in philosophical vein touching the question of her existence. She cannot be dead, for death brings knowledge and paradise joy; but she weeps. Osaka appears. He praises her rapturously her form, her hair, her eyes, her mouth, her smile. Iris thinks him veritably Jor, but he says his name is “Pleasure.” The maiden recoils in terror. A priest had taught her in an allegory that Pleasure and Death were one ! Osaka loads her with jewels, fondles her, draws her to his breast, kisses her passionately. Iris weeps. She knows nothing of passion, and longs only for her father, her cottage, and her garden. Osaka wearies of his guest, but Kyoto plans to play still further upon his lust. He clothes her in richer robes, but more transparent, places her upon a balcony, and, withdrawing a curtain, exhibits her beauty to the multitude in the street. Amazed cries greet the revelation. Osaka returns and pleads for her love.
“Iris!” It is the cry of the blind man hunting the child whom he thinks has sold herself into disgraceful slavery. The crowd falls back before him, while Iris rushes forward to the edge of the veranda and cries out to him, that he may know her presence. He gathers a handful of mud from the street and hurls it in the direction of her voice. “There ! In your face ! In your forehead ! In your mouth ! In your eyes ! Fango !” Under the imprecations of her father the mind of Iris gives way. She rushes along a corridor and hurls herself out of a window.
The third act is reached, and drama merges again into allegory. In the wan light of the moon rag-pickers, men and women, are dragging their hooks through the slimy muck that flows through the open sewer beneath the fatal window. They sing mockingly to the moon. A flash of light from Fujiyama awakens a glimmer in the filth. Again. They rush forward and pull forth the body of Iris and begin to strip it of its adornments. She moves and, they fly in superstitious fear. She recovers consciousness, and voices from invisible singers tell her of the selfish inspirations of Osaka, Kyoto, and her blind father ; Osaka’s desire baffled by fate such is life ! Kyoto’s slavery to pleasure and a hangman’s reward ; such is life ! The blind man’s dependence on his child for creature comforts ; such is life ! Iris bemoans her fate as death comes gently to her. The sky grows rosy and the light brings momentary life. She stretches out her arms to the sun and acclaims the growing orb. As once upon Ida
Glad earth perceives and from her bosom pours Unbidden herbs and voluntary flow’rs !
A field of blossoms spreads around her, into which she sinks, while the sun, again many-voiced and articulate, chants his glory as in the beginning.
The story is perhaps prettier in the telling than in the performance. What there is in its symbolism and its poetical suggestion that is ingratiating is more effective in the fancy than in the experience. There are fewer clogs, fewer stagnant pools, fewer eddies which whirl to no purpose. In the modern school, with its distemper music put on in splotches, there must be more merit and action. Psychological delineation in music which stimulates action, or makes one forget the want of outward movement, demands a different order of genius than that which Signor Mascagni possesses. Mere talent for artful device will not suffice. There are many effective bits of expressive writing in the score of “Iris,” but most of them are fugitive and aim at coloring a word, a phrase, or at best a temporary situation. There is little flow of natural, fervent melody. What the composer accomplished with tune, characteristic but fluent, eloquent yet sustained, in “Cavalleria rusticana,” he tries to achieve in “Iris” with violent, disjointed shifting of keys and splashes of instrumental color. In this he is seldom successful, for he is not a master of orchestral writing that technical facility which nearly all the young musicians have in the same degree that all pianists have finger technic. His orchestral stream is muddy ; his effects generally crass and empty of euphony. He throws the din of outlandish instruments of percussion, a battery of gongs, big and little, drums, and cymbals into his score without achieving local color. Once only does he utilize it so as to catch the ears and stir the fancy of his listeners in the beginning of the second act, where there is a murmur of real Japanese melody. As a rule, however, Signor Mascagni seems to have been careless in the matter of local color, properly so, perhaps, for, strictly speaking, local color in the lyric drama is for comedy with its petty limitations, not for tragedy with its appeal to large and universal passions. Yet it is in the lighter scenes, the scenes of comedy, like the marionette show, the scenes of mild pathos, like the monologues of Iris, and the scenes of mere accessory decoration, like that of the laundresses, the mousmés in the first act, with its purling figure borrowed from “Les Huguenots” and its unnecessarily uncanny col legno effect conveyed from “L’Africaine” that it is most effective.