If the bellwether of a story is how worthy it is of being told, then Iris doesn’t deserve very high marks; Pietro Mascagni’s grim opera about a stultifyingly naïve girl who is kidnapped from her blind father by a lecherous young man and then sold into prostitution in legendary Japan seems unnecessarily nauseating and indeed, it sometimes feels that way. But sordid stories often yield stunning operas (Salome, anyone?), and Iris, now seeing the light of the sun (Ha!) in a rare revival as part of Bard College’s 2016 SummerScape festival, is everything verismo – the movement towards realism in opera kickstarted by Mascagni – should be: Devastating, provocative, and direct.
In “Puccini and His World,” the theme of the opera portion of this year’s SummerScape festival, Leon Botstein highlights the works of Giacomo Puccini’s contemporaries who spearheaded and contributed to the verismo movement. Iris seems a logical choice in step with Bard’s mission of presenting underperformed operas in full productions for its palpable influence on Puccini’s own Madama Butterfly and Turandot as well as the infrequency of modern performances of the piece despite initial popularity. The production by James Darrah, though, is inconsistent. In a smart move, Darrah eschewed the opera’s half-hearted Japanese trappings for a timeless setting (No kimonos here – unlike in Butterfly, the setting is virtually insignificant to Iris’ plot) and focused on the darkness and nastiness in Mascagni’s most famous full-length opera after his one-act hit Cavalleria Rusticana. But sublimely directed moments (the chilling scene in Act II where Iris is displayed at the market, for example) are interspersed with uninspired stretches that seem to strand Iris (the tireless and commanding Talise Trevigne) most of all with overly-simplistic and repetitive blocking. Equally inconsistent are Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock’s sets, many of which actually seemed hazardous – in the first act, many singers haphazardly climbed and dismounted a vertical wall and act three saw a tall, uneven structure covered with a dropcloth that Trevigne had to negotiate while singing. More successful (and seemingly safer) was the deep-red brothel of Act II that easily morphed into the Yoshiwara market. And while I could probably write off all the cascading flower petals as directorial laziness, the effect created was repeatedly breathtaking. Adam Larsen’s inventive projections appear sporadically throughout the show and gave theatrical heft to the pivotal puppet show in Act I. Dressed in costumes by Peabody Southwell that seemed evocative of anime comics, the only visual reference to Japan in the show, the dancers of WIFE capably executed Gustavo Ramirez-Sansano’s slinky choreography. Southwell’s costumes for the cast, too, tended toward clearly-drawn silhouettes. Unfortunately, despite the glorious hymn to the rising sun in the first act, Neil Peter Jamopolis’ lighting tends to keep things dark.
Vocally, this Iris left little to be desired. Talise Trevigne possesses an attractive, smoky voice from top to bottom and the endearing presence necessary to redeem a character whose naivete can be seriously patience-testing. Osaka, the youth who sets his sights on Iris, was sung with a limpid, gleaming upper register by Gerard Schneider. Though his voice takes on a worn quality in the middle and lower range, it never loses potency and his “Apri la tua finestra” serenade was spun out gorgeously. Douglas Williams as the brothel owner who abducts Iris was a frightening and authoritative Kyoto, wielding an attractive baritone and crisp attacks on Luigi Illica’s incredibly texty libretto. Matthew Boehler’s Cieco, the nameless blind father of the title character, was sung with burnished tone and a detailed physical characterization. Cecelia Hall sang the part of the Geisha with an alluring dusky voice and assured physicality in the KGB trenchcoats-cum-leotard the geishas wore. Mascagni’s choral music is even more rapturous in Iris than it is in Cavalleria, especially so when sung with full-throated passion and gorgeous sound by the Bard Festival Chorale. Leon Botstein’s conducting, while lacking in much subtlety or shading beyond Mascagni’s own vivid and varied orchestration, confidently lead the American Symphony Orchestra. He succeeded in dutifully bringing the ensemble from one brilliant musical climax to the next and with verismo, with all its high-octane emotions, sometimes that’s all one needs. His tempi only noticeably lagged in the “Aria della piovra,” an oft-performed favorite of verismo divas like Magda Olivero and Clara Petrella, causing Trevigne to stumble with the lengthy text and costing the aria about an image Iris once saw in a Buddhist temple as a child its palpitating tension.
Bard SummerScape’s production makes about as strong a case for Iris as one could want these days. And with the sudden rediscovery of Baroque opera and its subsequent boom across the world, the time has never seemed more right for another look at verismo masterpieces. And if that movement is going to start anywhere, it’s going to be at SummerScape.
Iris receives four more performances this summer and tickets are available here.
All photos by Cory Weaver