Mascagni’s Overwrought Iris Shines At Bard

The Fisher Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y; July 31, 2016—Although Mascagni’s Iris never achieved the popularity of the composer’s Cavalleria rusticana, within four years of its Rome premiere it had been heard in Milan, all over Europe, in South America, and in New York. To my ears, it comes in third in Mascagni’s oeuvre, after L’amico Fritz, which is a glorious bauble, and, of course, Cavalleria, which will always win due to its relentless tone of brutality and its plethora of good tunes. Iris is actually more daring in its tonality than Cav, with more than a hint of French Impressionism (used here to imply Japan), but that doesn’t make up for its (primarily) one-dimensional characters, ghastly plot, and dry spots. Iris never quite makes up its mind whether it wants to be distasteful or spiritual. 

The plot, literally: We are in Japan, and young innocent Iris (soprano), who lives with and takes care of her blind father (Il Cieco, bass) and loves nothing more than nature and her garden, is noticed by Kyoto (baritone), a ruthless pimp, who brings his roué of a client Osaka (tenor) to ogle her. During a puppet show, at which a Geisha (soprano) sings a song and people dance and frolic, Kyoto kidnaps Iris, leaving Il Cieco bereft.

In Act 2 we are in Kyoto’s brothel. Iris awakens, looks around, and presumes she is dead and in Paradise. When Osaka attempts to woo her she neither understands nor expresses any interest. He leaves in a huff and Kyoto puts Iris on display for sale. Il Cieco, in the neighborhood, discovers Iris, believes that she has become a prostitute (Iris doesn’t realize that that is what’s going on), and denounces her, hurling mud at her and spitting. Iris, horrified, jumps into a sewer and dies. One would expect the opera to end here, but in fact, Iris, surrounded by ragpickers and other slimy types, is alive, revived, hallucinating, or we are watching her soul, reaching toward the sun, which makes flowers live and grow.

The plot, symbolically: Opening and closing (the latter a choral extravaganza) with a Hymn to the Sun, the opera is a parable of sorts about innocence, in which Iris is a flower (well, her name is Iris), and although industrialization and corruption can attempt to harm nature—i. e., destroy her—the sun will always come to the rescue and grow more flowers. Loveliness wins over evil, even in a sewer, apparently.

So that’s that. Mascagni’s orchestration is exotic and fascinating, and there are enough fine musical episodes to latch on to here, although each is invariably too long and many are over-the-top. The opera opens with a double bass solo (!) that meanders harmonically until, with the orchestra’s help, it turns into a quite ravishing symphonic episode—a Hymn to the Sun.

Iris herself has four fine solo scenes, of which the second-act “dream” aria is the best known; the wicked Osaka sings a marvelous aria in Act 1—“Apri la tua finestra”—and has another, passionate outburst in the second act; the role of the wicked Kyoto is wonderfully scenery-chewing in Act 2, and the choral episodes are stunning. It doesn’t quite come together the way Puccini’s operas do, but it is far from dismissable.

Bard’s production and musical presentation are more than good. James Darrah, working on Emily Anne MacDonald’s and Cameron Jaye Mack’s sets offers a mid-way view between literal and symbolic: Japan is nowhere to be found, and while Act 1 is presented in black and white, with a wall halfway up with Iris below and the puppet show and chorus and others above, the brothel scene is all neon, Lucite, and tacky-looking hookers. The last act is so murky it’s hard to know what it looks like, but it finds Iris climbing upward on precipitous blocks. It is a long climb.

Conductor Leon Botstein led an exciting performance that at times went for sheer volume but mostly supported his fine singers and chorus. Talise Trevigne proved a ravishing Iris, with a fast, emotion-laden vibrato, lovely phrasing, big, secure high notes, and the ability to sing sweetly when called for. Gerard Schneider possesses a thrilling tenor that sounds like it is still growing; his wicked Osaka may not have been convincingly acted, but his singing was passionate. Douglas Williams’ grand sound suited Kyoto’s wickedness, and Matthew Boehler as Il Cieco impressed vocally while looking like a teenager in an old man’s wig.

Who knows when we’ll get another chance to hear and see this rarity? It may be charred around the edges and make no sense, but as an Italian composer’s attempt to leave his comfort zone and experiment with different harmonies within the framework of a symbolist libretto, it fascinates. And Bard has honored it.