After half a century, a chance to hear Mascagni's so-so opera 'Iris'

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Pierto Mascagni is known for "Cavalleria Rusticana," and perhaps "L'Amico Fritz." Yet he wrote 15 operas in all, one of which, Iris," has had a strong but brief hold on the repertoire. The rest faded from view shortly after they were composed.

"Irish" has not been staged professionally in the States for over 50 years, and even the recent revivals in Italy have not ensured the opera's renaissance.

But the Concert Opera Orchestra here gave opera lovers a chance to hear what "Iris" is all about, and for that chance, we can all be lastingly grateful. Unfortunately for "Iris," the 129 or so minutes are distinguished only by a few arias, a lovely duet, and the rousing if corny "Hymn to the Sun" that opens and closes the work.

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Mascagni is said to have rattled "Cavalleria" of in about eight days. It is a cumulative sort of opera whose longuers and weak moments are barely noticed, since it lasts a mere 70 minutes. "Iris" has the same proportion of lapses without as much free- wheeling inspiration -- that gorgeous duet and other moments aside -- as its predecessor. The stretches of filler are just about as bottom-drawer Mascagni as exist.

Mascagni was a very competent orchestrator, and his melodic inspiration could be fine. But even his best efforts are hampered by the symbolic tale, set in Japan. It's a peculiar story of the childish Iris, abducted by a procurer, wooed for purely dishonorable purposes by the lecherous Osaka, cursed by her father and reviled of all. She throws herself into a sewer, where she is taken for dead. She revives just long enough to wonder musically as to her fate and to greet the Sun, who comes to her in full choral splendor to make her immortal.

Perhaps if the singing had been more accomplished, this "Iris" might have gone better. As it was, David Stockton, music director of the company, clearly loves the music and gave a solid, often lively account of the score. It really needs more of the alchemist's touch -- turning dross to gold -- than Stockton was able to give it. And of his performances in Boston to date, it was one of the least wisely picked cast.

Roberta Laws is a promising young singer who is clearly not experienced enough as yet to tackle so long a role as Iris. Hers is a beautiful soprano that often rings freely and truly, but she was impassive dramatically and flawed and un-Italianate vocally. Harry Theyard's tone was weak and unreliable -- and Osaka, vicious cad that he is, needs far more than that. STephen West brought a certain oratorio solidity but hamminess to the role of Iris's father. Baritone Andrew Smith was the only seasoned vocalist, though he, as all the others, used a highly individual language that only rarely approximated Italian. 'I Lombardi'

Stockton's enterprise was more suitably tested by a performance of Verdi's "I Lombardi" last month. His conducting was often quite rousing, thoughtful toward his singers, and very secure throughout. Vocally, the young bass John Cheek took top honors, as he always does here with Concert Opera. In 1,000-seat Jordan Hall he does not have to force, and he has less trouble being heard over a 46 -piece orchestra. In all, his Pagano was a rousing Veridan villain.Tenor Melvyn Poll had a few problems with his voice, or his Cronte would have been more convincing. As it was, his big, slightly nasal, occasionally braying tone filled Jordan hall to the rafters with ringing, old-fashioned, splendidly audible operatic tone. Subtle no. Fun, considerably!

Alma Jean Smith is trying to break out of her comprimario status at the Met. Here she attempted Giselda to generally unhappy effect. Her soprano has a potential size and tonal quality, which she infrequently exploits. Historically she generally was awkward, as she often is at the Met.

For "I Lombardi," Mr. Stockton used the local Masterworks Chorale, and they sang well. In "Iris," his own Concert Opera Orchestra Chorus makes less noise, but proved commendable in enthusiasm if not always reliable in sustaining pitches. Duke Bluebeard's Castle'

The Boston Symphony took a too-rare plunge into opera with a performance of Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle." The cast on paper -- Yvonne Minton and Gwynne Howell did not seem ideal. As it turned out, they did very well. Howell remains a rather stolid artist, but he seemed livelier than usual in his total presentation. Miss Minton was in fine voice, and she brought a constant sense of awe and wonder to her work. The two of them had worked out a very convincing staging on the tiny space alloted them next to the podium.

Ozawa's contribution was the finest thing he has done here in quite some time. If a new moments did not breathe as expensively as they should have, nonetheless it was a performance that took into full measure the theatrical and evocative richness of Bartok's extraordinary score. The BSO played superby throughout.

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