Magazine article The Spectator

Mascagni in the Park

Magazine article The Spectator

Mascagni in the Park

Article excerpt

What is the best way to revive a semiforgotten opera, in a manner that does it justice without giving the impression that it is a near-masterpiece? If it's not a nearmasterpiece, it is best that no one should be misled into thinking that it is, since that will most likely mean disappointment at future encounters with it. Although, finances allowing, it might be fun to see what can be made of a trifle by giving it the international all-star treatment, that is probably best left to the record companies, whose products are made for repeated use, and, if they get it, will expose the comparative inferiority of the piece simply by inviting repetition, and thus inevitably lead the listener to form his unillusioned judgment.

All this by way of preamble to my warm report on Mascagni's Iris, as performed by Opera Holland Park in the eponymous theatre last week. It was a hit last year, but an unhappy encounter with a much greater work there earlier in the season had made me keep my distance. An inveterate optimist, I turned up for the first night, and thus the first cast, this year, only to have my optimism most satisfactorily vindicated. I don't have any sense that Iris is a work deserving of repertory status, but it packs a satisfactory punch and commands fairly continuous interest.

Coming eight years after Cavalleria Rusticana, it shows Mascagni shrewdly tuning in to the vogue for japanoiserie, and also trying something rather more extended than his early hit, though not by a great deal. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, `the true problem with the subject' is `the thinness of the action', and this is not a judgment that I would dispute. (I'd like to mention here that New Grove has just been published in paperback, and that it is, for any serious opera lover, indispensable, as well as being, for the most part, highly readable, something one hardly expects from encyclopaedias, which is what this really is. There is no general respect in which it can be faulted, and there are some articles, such as Bernard Williams's on `The nature of opera', which mark a substantial advance in thinking about the medium. Anyone who buys the paperback edition, on the other hand, might soon wish that they had bought the hardback, since constant reference to it becomes a feature of any owner's life.)

Iris doesn't have so much a thin action as an excessive preoccupation with the frame in which to place it. The subject is no less substantial than that of many far longer operas which justify their length. …

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