Karine Babajanyan, David Oštrek, Ernesto Petti, Samuele Simoncini, Nina Sveistrup Clausen, Andrés Moreno García; Berlin Opera Society Choir and Orchestra/Felix Krieger
Oehms OC 991 119:34 mins (2 discs)
Mascagni had a finger on the late 19th-century western cultural pulse, yet somehow persistently misread the beat. Cavalleria rusticana is a slice of verismo, L’amico Fritz sentimentalises the countryside for modern city folk, while Iris knows that the western world has gone east to Japan. Yet these are themes and locations explored with greater skill by other composers and, frankly, Madam Butterfly and The Mikado both trump Mascagni’s oriental ace.
Iris’s problem is Luigi Illica’s ‘poetic’ libretto and its attempt to use symbolism (also fashionable at that time) to tell the story. The tingling theatrical frisson is missing as a country girl abducted to become a geisha throws herself to her death from a window in Yoshiwara (Tokyo’s red light district) after her blind father disowns her. Myth, symbolism and a puppet play-within-a-play are no substitute for drama, however appealing the music. And Mascagni certainly knew how to write a melody: the hymn to the sun at the start of the opera is packed with rising excitement, and the Act III interlude is perfectly pitched night music.
Karine Babajanyan grows into the role of Iris in this live recording from Berlin, though as a kind of living doll there’s little to help her walk or talk like the abused woman she is. Alas, Samuele Simoncini as Osaka, Iris’s would-be seducer, is coarsely Italianate in his tone and phrasing, but Ernesto Petti’s Kyoto, who keeps the house of geishas, is exactly what you want from the baritone.
The conviction that Felix Krieger and the Orchester der Berliner Operngruppe bring to Mascagni’s score is well beyond doubt. But conviction is not enough – you crave drama too.