Bard's Summer Scape performs Mascagni's Iris

Bard Summer Scape 2016 features Mascagni’s IRIS

The 27th Bard Summer Scape and the Bard Music Festival at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, opens on July 1 and closes on August 14.

The theme this year is Puccini and His World, which, one would think, begs for an infrequently performed Puccini work as the Festival’s opera centerpiece, his early Edgar springing immediately I’m sure to those operatically inclined minds with a perverse penchant for the obscure. But though Edgar easily fits the category “infrequently performed,’ all of Puccini’s subsequent operas get more than ample stage time these days, at least at the Met and all over Italy. Puccini is the operatic cash cow of the 20th century.

Giacomo Puccini...Alinari/Bridgeman Images 

Giacomo Puccini...Alinari/Bridgeman Images 

For Mascagni the case is exactly the opposite: save his early runaway success Cavalleria Rusticana, all of Mascagni’s subsequent operas, some eleven or so ‘major’ ones, if that’s the right word, remain virtually unknown on stage these days. More often than not these are represented by only one, maybe two recordings of live performances taped from the stage or from a broadcast. Bravi to Bard College President and Bard Music Festival Co-Director Leon Botstein and his staff for selecting Iris for the 2016 opera! It is a diamond in the rough, with the emphasis on the word ‘diamond’ for the music, the ‘rough’ reserved for the plot, featuring a gentle Iris trampled by callous men of questionable motives or morals.

Rewind to Europe in the late 19th century: the Orient is one of many new fads, but by the time Mascagni caught the Express, Camille Saint-Saëns (La Princess jaune, 1872), Arthur Sullivan (The Mikado, 1885), André Messager (Madame Chrysanthème, 1893), and Sidney Jones (The Geisha, 1896), to name just a few, were already on board. Iris, set to a libretto by the renowned Luigi Illica, premiered in Rome in November, 1898, which, for temporal context, was less than two years before Tosca. As for the far East, Puccini would be waiting on the platform at the next stop with Madama Butterfly (1904), scenario by the same Illica with verses by Giuseppe Giacosa. Iris arrived at the Met in 1907 with Enrico Caruso and Emma Eames, revived in 1915 for Lucrezia Bori (Toscanini conducting) for a grand total of 13 performances. For the record, the Met also performed Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz (1894 (Emma Calvé) and 1923 (Lucrezia Bori), total of 5 performances) and Lodoletta (1918, total of 8 performances in two seasons) with Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar and Pasquale Amato). And that’s it. This defines ‘infrequent’ in my book, probably also in yours.

Unlike Cio Cio San, Iris is not seduced and abandoned by a cunning Westerner, but rather used and abused by men of her own people, her blind father Il Cieco (the Blind One) included. She is like the beautiful flower innocently waiting to be plucked but then discarded when she has lost her bloom. Flowers, ever a part of Japanese art, form a central theme in the opera, opening themselves in the sunlight and closing at night. Like Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Iris begins with deep sounds, but of the dark night, not the murky depths of a river, ever brightening with the first rays of the sun to a crescendo as the dawn breaks. The Sun is given voice through the agency of an unseen chorus…depending, of course, on how it’s staged here. He, the Sun that is, comes back at the end to warm the last moments of Iris’s sad death in filth. Fans of Boito’s Mefistofele will note the structural similarities of these tonal parentheses in Iris.

Her gentle simplicity, in some respects like Puccini’s Suor Angelica, is established at the very beginning as she tends to her flower garden. She is abducted away from her dependent but grumpy old father by Kyoto and Osaka (no joke, really). Both men are smitten by her beauty. The former, the owner of a house of pleasure in Yoshiwara, a notorious red lantern district, has business in mind; the latter, a lust driven nobleman with a lot of money, is the customer first in line. The two take advantage of a traveling puppet theater, disguising themselves as actors with the cooperation of the players. In fact, the aria Aprite la tua finestra in Act I, most likely the only one you’ll recognize, if at all, is Osaka’s voice-over for the puppet Jor, who is the Son of the Sun. Iris is spell bound by the drama, she, flower-like, having a special relationship with the Sun and now, wow, she's hearing him speak to her! But suddenly the geishas surround the transfixed Iris and, unseen by all the others, Kyoto’s samurai whisk her away to town. The bold themes of the Sun and life, contrasted with the cheap sounds of the small band of the puppet theater, figure prominently in the music of Act I.

Talise Trevigne sings Iris at Bard's Summer Scape

Talise Trevigne sings Iris at Bard's Summer Scape

In Act II the naïve Iris has no idea what’s in store for her in the Yoshiwara geisha house. A gentle theme in the strings, as easily from Wolf-Ferrari’s pen as from Mascagni’s, becomes her music as Kyoto and Osaka contemplate her beauty sleep. Iris recognizes Osaka’s voice as that of Jor, Son of the Sun, but, getting at last to the point, Osaka renames himself Il Piacere (Pleasure), though in fact Iris hasn’t a clue about just what sort of pleasure Osaka keeps returning the conversation to. You can bet it's not flower arranging. Their one sided love duet never comes together in unison as does that between Pinkerton and Butterfly in their Act I. 

Gerald Schneider sings Osaka in Bard's Iris

Gerald Schneider sings Osaka in Bard's Iris

Osaka leaves, frustrated. Her long solo Ognora sogni reflects how much her mind and fantasies wander around on the outskirts of reality. Wanting his money’s worth, Kyoto threatens to throw Iris down a garbage chute into the fetid sewers below if she doesn’t cooperate, which, because it stinks to high heaven down there, she does, consenting to pose face painted and colorfully robed on the balcony for all the gents in the streets to see. Pays to advertise, I guess. Seeing her again, this time decked out, Osaka’s lust is rekindled and he sings appropriately so. But just then her father, who at the close of Act I vowed to find Iris and punish her for leaving him, finds her, not, as one would hope, to rescue her but rather to throw mud at her. Distraught, Iris throws herself down the hole into the waste products. There in Act III she dies as the early rays of the sun embrace her; Iris is transformed in death. Meanwhile the self-centered men Kyoto, Osaka, and Il Cieco commiserate about how rough life will be without her, though each is remorseless about the fact that she is dead. Apart from the aforementioned sonic bookends at the beginning and end of Iris, the music is recognizably in Mascagni’s fach, for better or worse, though it’s not a blatant rehash of Cavalleria, again for better or worse. The score is far more organic, less one set piece after another set piece; its musical themes interweave throughout, yet without conspicuous sacrifice of the big moments so vivid in his first big hit. 

Douglas Williams sings Kyoto

Douglas Williams sings Kyoto

A respectable complete studio recording of Iris, starring Placido Domingo, Ilona Tokody, Juan Pons, and Bonaldo Giaiotti, conducted by Giuseppe Patane (1989, then on CBS Records) is still available. The aria Aprite la tua finestra can be found on Jonas Kaufmann’s new album of arias on Decca entitled The Age of Puccini (released in 2015). Other available complete live performances of Iris include those of sopranos Daniela Dessai, Magda Olivero, and Clara Petrella.

Puccini and His World is indeed about his world, which, musically at least, includes some sixteen other contemporary and admirable Italian opera composers, some relatively progressive, swayed by contemporary ‘advances’ in music and literature, with a tendency to look down at the others who remained more conventional or even regressive. My partial list, with names, dates in chronological birth order, signature works, and dates of their premieres, includes Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), Mefistofele (1868, 1881 with revisions); Alfredo Catalani (1854-1893), La Wally (1892); Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), I Pagliacci (1892); Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) (I had to include him, it is after all ‘his world’ here. Do I need to list them?); Alberto Franchetti (1860-1942), Cristoforo Colombo (1892 of course); Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), Cavalleria Rusticana (1890); Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), Doktor Faust (1925); Francesco Cilea (1866-1950), Adrianna Lecouvreur (1902); Umberto Giordano (1867-1948), Andrea Chenier (1896); Franco Alfano (1875-1954), La leggenda di Sakuntala (1921); Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952), L’amor di tre re (1913); Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948), Il campiello (1936) out of many; Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), La compana sommerso (1927); Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), Fedra (1915); Gian Francisco Malipiero (1882-1973), a lot you’ll probably never see; Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1945), Francesca da Rimini (1914); and Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), La donna serpente (1932). A veritable flurry of names, dates, and operas, it’s true. With a little digging these are all relatively easy to find on CD today, though most not on DVD or even on stage somewhere within range of your pocket book. Which is why Iris is very welcome this season.

Three broad factors stand out here: first, four composers on the list (and also Puccini) had the good grace to pass into the next world where the angels sing before Mussolini’s fascist regime took a firm grip on Italy, which, when you think about it, saved them from the dilemma of having to decide about their allegiance to his government: do you stay and salute? Or drop out of sight, stay low, but remain in Italy? Or do you embrace neither option and make a fast exit abroad where who ever heard of a living Italian opera composer? The last two options spell the end of a musical career. Second, the survivors faced the same dilemma of years ago when Verdi retired (and passed): who will assume the title and spotlight as Italy’s king of opera with Puccini now deceased? Who will live to see their art realized in performance? But third, with Mussolini in power, from whom do they get financial backing? Fascists were hostile to Malipiero’s La favola del figlio combiato, to a libretto by Pirandello, in 1934, but his Giulio Cesare in 1936, with its obvious themes of Italian power and greatness, was better received; Mascagni’s Nerone (Nero) in 1935 was intended as a tribute to Mussolini.

The relationship between the powerful and the rich, pardon the redundancy here, and the arts is well exemplified and documented in the history of the world of opera. Just ask Lully, Handel, Rameau, Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart, to name six, to tell you how their works got realized. Ask Verdi or Donizetti or Prokofiev or Shostakovich how he felt about government or church censorship. As much as this relationship is largely responsible for the operas we know and love today, it’s also responsible for the operas we either almost didn’t know until recently or will never know. Their creators weren’t permitted to nurture their craft through practical performance experience, weren’t given any exposure, publicity, or promotion...basically not given much of a chance, be it because their political views, their beliefs, or their culture differed from that favored by the powerful and the rich. It’s no different today.

Those wishing to hear Leon Botstein and others discuss aspects of this season's Summer Scape please click on the link below:

Watch this video interview with Bard College President and Bard Music Festival Artistic Codirector Leon Botstein to learn about Giacomo Puccini’s world.

In the cast Talise Trevigne sings the lovely Iris, Gerald Schneider takes the role Osaka, and Douglas Williams sings Kyoto. Mascagni’s Iris is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the Fridays July 22 and 29 at 7:30 p.m., Sundays July 24 and 31 and Wednesday July 27 at 2 p.m. The pre-opera talk is July 24 at noon; the roundtrip Summerscape coach from New York City runs on July 22, 24, and 31. By my calculations Acts I & II are each about 50 minutes, Act III is about 25.

Photos of artists are by Gideon Lester.

Puccini’s ghost haunts the discourse of the Festival, with extended commentary on the rapidly changing world from the late 19th century to the middle of the century, probably the relationship between power and art, and the strong personalities of the era. Non-operatic works from that period, notably the Respighi/Rossini ballet Fantasque, and other works inspired by that period are also performed.

Marcella Mariani in Luciano Visconti's  Senso , 1954

Marcella Mariani in Luciano Visconti's Senso, 1954

Oh, and don't miss the film series entitled Puccini and the Operatic Impulse in Cinema. Films by Bertolucci, Visconti, Leone, Scorsese, and Ivory, among others, are featured.

For complete information, dates and times, also ticket sales, please visit Bard’s website ( or call the Box Office at 845-758-7900.