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Bard SummerScape

In Review Bard Iris lg 1016
Trevigne as Mascagni’s Iris at Bard
Photo by Cory Weaver

OPERAGOERS ARE ONCE AGAIN in debt to Leon Botstein’s Bard SummerScape for presenting a lesser-known work of the opera repertory with visual flair and general musical distinction. Pietro Mascagni’s Iris, launched in 1898 in Rome, rode a fin-de-siècle wave of japonaiserie that later ushered in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly—which has largely obscured Iris ever since, though the earlier opera had its innings at the Old Met, La Scala and elsewhere. 

Mascagni’s work shares one of Butterfly’s co-librettists, Luigi Illica, whose fable-like narrative posits a naïve girl—used to flowers and the sun as her only companions—getting abducted to a brothel, rejecting her rich suitor, enduring public paternal denunciation and ending her life in a subterranean sewer, ecstatically dying as the sun’s rays seemingly transmute her into a world of flowers. These tropes, all both familiar and useful, don’t quite gel into a coherent drama; Illica’s language gets pretentious. Only Act I’s play-within-a play generates authentic musico-dramatic tension. That said, there is much beautiful music. Botstein correctly stated in the program that Iris is neither particularly veristic nor in any sense “Japanese”; like Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Iris fits more into the category of “wagnerismo.” As Botstein noted, Lohengrin (high violins!) and Parsifal (harmonics!) make their legacy felt.

The introductory chords of Iris and some of Act III seem an explicit borrowing from Act II of Siegfried (as does the final act of La Fanciulla del West, with the brooding Rance), so stage director James Darrah and his production team did well to present the work in terms of expressionism. Darrah’s choices for blocking, gesture and imagery were sound (though coins rather than paper money would have served more logically in scenes featuring Iris’s blind, enfeebled father). The sets by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock were spatially and architecturally pleasing. Neil Peter Jampolis’s lighting proved outstanding for atmosphere and precision, although the theater’s surtitles for this obscure work were literally and frustratingly dim. I liked Peabody Southwell’s edgy costuming, with one major exception: as the brothel-keeper Kyoto, the handsome, graceful bass-baritone Douglas Williams—an excellent Handelian notably miscast in a baritone part requiring vocal power he lacks—was dressed like a cross between magician David Copperfield and the elf Legolas in The Lord of the Rings

Leading the American Symphony Orchestra, Botstein was more sensitive to his singers than on some past occasions, but he does seem drawn to volume; the famed “Hymn to the Sun,” which bookends Iris, gave that penchant free reign. Heard July 24 (the second performance of five), the players and choristers all sounded impressive tonally, but neither group sounded fully massaged into phrasing like true ensembles. A slight, vulnerable and beautiful figure, Talise Trevigne won all hearts as the enigmatic Iris, though the part clearly calls for a spinto sound—the first Iris was Hariclea Darclée, who also created the roles of Tosca and La Wally. Trevigne’s radiant top and musical phrasing served her well; she deserved her curtain-call cheers. Tenor Gerard Schneider showed appealing timbre as the scheming suitor Osaka, a role evidently designed around its creator Fernando de Lucia’s remarkable ability to sing in the upper passaggio. Oddly, it’s the tessitura, not the range, that’s high, with virtually no climactic high notes. Schneider coped manfully, if somewhat too relentlessly, sometimes pushing into static.

It was odd that Darrah and the designers chose to let Il Cieco—movingly played and solidly vocalized by Matthew Boehler—appear to be roughly his daughter’s age. Has graying hair onstage become unhip? Her mezzo rich and fluid, Cecelia Hall gave a wonderful account of the Geisha’s striking, often melismatic music. Mascagni’s intriguing experiment may not be a revealed masterwork, but Bard’s presentation marked a serious effort by all concerned.  —David Shengold

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