Mascagni's Iris at Bard

Mascagni’s Iris performed at Bard

As is their wont, Leon Botstein and his artists, instrumentalists, and the creative staff for Bard’s SummerScape bring off another intellectually intriguing and emotionally engaging performance of an opera infrequently encountered these days. This year it is Pietro Mascagni’s Iris.

Coming eight years after his still world famous Cavalleria Rusticana, Iris, set in a timeless Japan, was fairly popular at first, even championed by the great Arturo Toscanini. But it was later overtaken and then left way behind by Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, just as Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, also fairly popular in its time, was ultimately left in the dust by another Puccini opera, the title of which I’m pretty sure you can guess.

But Iris has passion, Butterfly has passion, so what happened? For one thing audiences were most likely expecting another Cavalleria from Mascagni. However, a bigger part of the problem lies with the story: Iris is innocent, gentle and pure, caring for her flower gardens, her little home, and her crusty old blind father. Her beauty inflames the desires of the procurer Kyoto and il ricco Osaka, the former for wealth, the latter for the delicious prospects of carnal pleasures with her. They kidnap Iris. In Kyoto’s brothel in the big city (Act II) she is abused, her identity is nearly crushed, and she is even cursed by her father, who swore he’d find her and punish her for ‘deserting’ him. Distraught, she hurls herself into a garbage pit, where, in the Epilogue (Act III as written), she is revived, filled with the warmth of the sun, and dies redeemed, decomposing into high grade fertile potting soil, ideal for your flowers next spring.

This last is just a guess, not actually in the libretto.

Iris, Act I

Iris, Act I

Iris follows a plot structure found in other operas, six examples of which, more or less contemporaries, include Humperdinck’s Königskinder, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia (the one who takes the hit), Eugene d’Albert’s Tiefland, Frederick Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, arguably even Parsifal and Lohengrin. The structure is as follows: in the beginning the innocents, nature’s children, they who’ve been protectively sheltered or merely adrift from civilization and its discontents, are made to suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageously unfortunate, miserable dirty real world in the middle of the opera, only to be redeemed or at least find peace at the final curtain.

But the characters in these operas are to a certain degree oddly passive and detached. Iris is not passionate in a positive way about other human beings, as is Butterfly toward Pinkerton in her Act I, but rather Iris is all about maintaining the sheltered little life she leads, particularly tending to the flowers in her garden. When this life style is seriously threatened oh sure she gets passionately desperate, as well she should, but, seeing no way out, she just jumps ship. Arguably Butterfly does the same, but her suicide is an active assertion of her code of honor. It reflects the nobility of her character in light of no other reasonable option, given the raw deal Pinkerton has dealt her.

Soprano Talise Trevigne rises to every challenge of the title role. Her quiet gentility, her reverence toward the life giving sun and her childlike amusement with the geisha players (Act I), however serene, are shed to reveal the cornered tigress of Act II when it becomes fairly evident to her that she’s not actually in Paradise. If the music and action of Act I will be to some extent puzzling to Mascagni fans, like “when is this opera going to get moving,” Act II of Iris takes off with a healthy amount of the verismo style of singing. Trevigne uses her expressive voice well throughout the performance, but she is particularly gripping here and to the very end. All in all hers was a stellar vocal and dramatic display. Brava!

Osaka is taken by tenor Gerard Schneider. This, too, is a verismo role, every bit as big as Turiddu or Canio. Schneider’s performance gained fire as this afternoon progressed, especially in Act II. Unlike Butterfly, there is no big lyrical love duet to make us weep, but rather a one-sided interchange of Osaka's lustful thoughts to her innocent replies. He leaves frustrated, yet when he sees Iris decked out on display in her scanty geisha garb, he finds his passion again. Assertive character he, if ultimately in vain.

Douglas Williams is a sleazy Kyoto, tall and muscular as are his ‘vampires,’ the geisha girls decked in black leather. Cecelia Hall gives eerie voice to one of these characters. The Ragpickers in the Epilogue are Samuel Levine, Joseph Chappel, and Mark Donato.

Praise too goes to Leon Botstein’s pacing of Mascagni’s score: he lets it breathe, without rushing. Mascagni's music speaks for itself. I suspect that Botstein opened up traditional cuts, though I’d be loath to tell you if there actually are cuts or exactly where they are. The logic here? My trusty CBS 1989 recording of Iris runs just 4 minutes over two hours, whereas this Iris was three hours end to end with about 30 minutes for the only intermission, maybe 10 for the pause between Act II and the Epilogue (Act III). There seemed to be more of Iris’s role, especially toward the end of in Act II. And the prelude to Act III (here the Epilogue) might have been extended as well to accommodate the scenery change behind the scrim. Trivial this last point: it is what it is.

The production designers creatively and effectively solve the staging demands of the opera. See, Iris is rather static dramatically in the Prologue/Act I and the Epilogue (Act III), most of the real ‘action,’ as you’ve by this point surmised, occurs in Act II. The grand chorus weighs in at the beginning and at the end, mightily extolling the virtues of light, warmth and above all love, the things every flower longs for. But they’re not really a part of the action, as in, say, “chorus of party guests at Violetta’s” or “chorus of courtiers and courtesans in the Duke’s court at Mantua.” Still, in order to maximize the impact of these choral moments, the chorus should, the whole lot of ‘em, be right in your face, front and center, forte…which, thankfully, they are. Believe me: it works! One faces the same problem staging Boito’s Mefistofele, but also you’d encounter it, if you dared, staging Schönberg’s Gurrelieder or the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 8, both with named characters and huge choral endings.

Act II of Mascagni's  Iris

Act II of Mascagni's Iris

Scenic Designers Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock solve it like this: in the dawn of the Prologue/Act I, Iris and her father sleep on the floor of the lower level of the stage as the large sunny chorus quietly enters on the upper level. This lower level is her action space (see photo on top) until she is hoisted up and abducted; in the Epilogue, the chorus fills in on stage around the large pile of garbage bags as Iris ascends to the top to meet the sunlight head on (see photo below). The color schemes, enhanced by lighting designer Niel Peter Jampolis, with projections by Adam Larsen, work too: the prologue and Act I are warm pale oranges and blues, with traces of blowing, undulating leaves and branches projected onto this (see again photo on top). But Act II is shades of rich blue and garish red, again with slowly moving images on the rear scrim that are hypnotic, ever drawing one in (see photo directly above). Through the prelude to the Epilogue a large puppet represents Iris falling (floating?) in slow-mo to the as yet unrevealed trash heap. By the fetid mound's color and slimy appearance you imagine you can almost smell it.        

Iris greets the Sun as the Chorus gives the moment voice at the opera's final curtain

Iris greets the Sun as the Chorus gives the moment voice at the opera's final curtain

Iris is, simply stated, a beautiful, powerfully emotional opera. Not to be missed.

Photos by Cory Weaver.

Review performance: Sunday, July 24, 2016

As stated above, Iris is performed in two blocks: Prologue/Act I, then a relatively long intermission, followed by Act II and the Epilogue with only a pause in between.

Mascagni’s Iris is performed again in the Sosnoff Theater on Wednesday July 27 at 2 p.m., Friday July 29 at 7:30 p.m. and finally on Sunday July 31, also at 2. The roundtrip SummerScape coach from New York City runs on July 31. Remember that Puccini and his World is the surrounding discussion as is the showing of several Italian films inspired by this world (see OperaMetro's preview of the season below). For complete information, dates and times, also ticket sales for all events this summer, please visit Bard’s website or call the Box Office at 845-758-7900.

Unusually hot for a July afternoon at Bard, not the casual refreshing downpour. But it's always wonderful for everyone involved. Make it part of your summer. Enjoy. JRS