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Mascagni’s “Iris” : Opera at SummerScape 2016

by Florindo Troncelliti

Reviving important but neglected operas has long been central to Bard SummerScape’s mission, This year’s offering is a fully staged production if Iris, a darkly impressionistic forerunner of Madama Butterfly by Pietro Mascagni.

Mascagni’s three-​​act opera, Iris, debuted on November 22, 1898 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Luigi Illica (Madama Butterfly, Tosca) originally created the libretto under a contract with composer Alberto Franchetti in 1894. The story goes that Franchetti changed his mind about the project, and abandoned it. Three years later Illica offered the book to Mascagni who agreed to take on the project of composing the score.

Iris is a young girl, violently abducted from the home she shares with her blind father. She is forced into prostitution in Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s red light district.  Yoshiwara had been constructed to contain the sex trade to a small, enclosed area of Tokyo. It persisted as such, even under the American occupation, until the 1950s, when prostitution became illegal, after pressure from the commanders of the American armies.

Yoshiwara prostitutes c. 1890

Yoshiwara prostitutes c. 1890

Because of her resistance, Osaka, Iris’s abductor, tires of his efforts to consummate his passion with her. He hands her over to the crude brothel keeper Kyoto, who humiliates Iris by having her paraded in a transparent gown.  It is then that she is discovered and denounced by her father. Iris throws herself into a sewer, where her suffering is prolonged, before she finally dies.

Talise Trevigne as Iris - photo by Cory Weaver

Talise Trevigne as Iris — photo by Cory Weaver

Grammy-​​nominated soprano Talise Trevigne, who recently proved herself “a Butterfly worthy of mention alongside of Maria Callas” (Voix des Artes), sings the title role. Bass-​​Baritone Douglas Williams –”the most completely satisfying singer” (New York Times) — portrays the villainous brothel-​​keeper, Kyoto. Austrian-​​Australian tenor Gerard Schneider sings Osaka, the rich young man whose lust and treachery spell Iris’s downfall. Matt Boehler plays Il Cieco, Iris’s father. The New York Times refers to Boehler as “a bass with an attitude and the goods to back it up.”

Pietro Miscagni - Photo courtesy BBC archives

Pietro Miscagni — Photo courtesy BBC archives

Mascagni (1863 – 1945) was Giacomo Puccini’s close friend, one-​​time roommate, and sometime rival for public acclaim. Puccini is the subject of this year’s Bard Music Festival, “Puccini and His World”. Mascagni is best known, of course, for his one-​​act masterpiece, Cavalleria Rusticana, which sets the standard in verismo opera to this day. According to music critic John Palmer (allmusic​.com), the success of Cavalleria weighed upon Mascagni in that he wanted to be remembered as a more versatile composer, one reputed as capable of greater breadth in style of composition than solely for his most popular work.

In Iris Mascagni sought a means “to expand his orchestral palette and make the most of the exotic imagery afforded by Illica’s libretto” (Palmer). In June 1896 Mascagni commenced work on the score. Proceeding slowly and with great deliberation, he wrote of the project to a friend, that he endeavored to create “real music, not … some buffoonery of oddities and scenes over a contrabassoon or bass pedal” (Palmer).

Iris premiered to acclamation in Rome in 1898, then two months later opened in a slightly revised version at La Scala in Milan.  By 1902 Iris had been staged throughout the capitals of Europe and North and South America.  Mascagni himself conducted the New York premiere.

James Darrah - Director- Photo by Simon Kessler

James Darrah — Director– Photo by Simon Kessler

Conceived expressly for SummerScape 2016, James Darrah’s staged production of Iris represents an all too rare opportunity to realize the opera’s many interesting dramatic points. Mascagni crafted a shimmering, dreamlike score called, “bewitchingly lovely” (Independent, UK). Director James Darrah calls Iris “severe, dark, violent and truly expressionistic in tone and rich with imagination.” Darrah goes on to say, “An evocatively abstract libretto pairs with staggering orchestral writing, imbuing the piece with an otherworldly scope.”

Iris precedes Madama Butterfly by six years, and Mascagni’s use of exotic percussion — such as chimes and gongs — foreshadows elements of Puccini’s orchestration for Madama Butterfly. There is a twenty second passage of orchestration in Turandot that Puccini seems to have lifted in its entirety from the second act of Iris. The overture or prologue of Iris displays an assortment of musical impressions anticipating Madama Butterfly, but is most strikingly reminiscent of some of Wagner’s gradually rising string passages, which Mascagni magnificently culminates into the Inno del sole (Hymn to the Sun).

Throughout the opera, Mascagni creates an exotic atmosphere his contemporaries would have associated with Japan. A harp conveys the delicate sound of the samisen Iris plays in Act II,” while japonisme modal passages in the strings (Palmer) are conjured during the puppet show in Act I. Audiences will enjoy identifying suggestions of other famous compositions by the likes of Puccini, Wagner and Debussy, delicately woven into the texture of Iris.

These performances feature the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton of music director Leon Botstein. As Time Out New York observed last season, “Botstein and Bard SummerScape show courage, foresight and great imagination, honoring operas that larger institutions are content to ignore.” Indeed, as the Financial Times notes, “Some of the most important summer opera experiences in the U.S. are not at the better known festivals but at Bard SummerScape.”

There will be five performances of Iris at SummerScape 2016, in the Sosnoff Theater at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. Friday evening performances at 7:30 PM will be on July 22nd and 29th.  There are three matinees scheduled for July 24th, 27th and 31st at 2 PM.

Tickets start at $25, and can be purchased now at the Fisher Center box office 845 – 758-​​7900 or website here:

Featured Image: Talise Trevigne, soprano, as Iris — Bard SummerScape 2016 — Photo by Corey Weaver

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