|Mascagni's IRIS at Bard SummerScape|
It took three and a half hours on the bus to arrive at Annandale-on-Hudson, home of the beautiful Bard campus, but the pleasant greenery and dinner at the fashionable Spiegeltent restored our spirits. The sight of Frank Gehry's Fisher Center dazzled the eye; the interior impressed with its comfort, excellent acoustics and fine sight-lines.
But we came for the music--an opportunity to witness a fully staged production of an important but neglected opera--which is the mission of this summer festival. Pietro Mascagni was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini, who was both friend and rival. Best known for his 1890 Cavalleria Rusticana, and his L'Amico Fritz of 1891, Mascagni premiered Iris (also in Rome) in 1898. If one hoped to hear the gorgeous music for which this composer is remembered, one would not be disappointed.
A chorus celebrating the Sun opens and closes the work and Chorus Master James Bagwell provided the depth and strength the work called for. Similar encomium can be offered to Maestro Leon Botstein, who led his American Symphony Orchestra in an articulate performance of the gorgeous score. The singers left absolutely nothing to be desired in their performances.
Talise Trevigne's expansive soprano sailed over the orchestra and was just right for the lead and, like the other artists, she did her best to enact what the director requested, although she did not appear completely comfortable dramatically. Mezzo-soprano Cecilia brought a fine timbre to her role as Geisha and enacted a severe presence. Gerard Schneider's full-throated tenor met all of Mascagni's challenges; we felt sorry for him trying to perform a seduction on a most uncomfortable slab.
Douglas Williams seemed most comfortable onstage and exhibited a fine presence as well as a resonant bass-baritone just right for the role of Kyoto. As the Blind Father, Matthew Boehler's bass truly delivered and he blundered around onstage in a convincing fashion. Samuel Levine's terrific tenor didn't show up until Act III but sounded just fine.
The flaw lay in the libretto. If one hoped for a cogent story with characters one could relate to, as in Cavalleria Rusticana, one definitely would be disappointed! Since the Victorian era, Europe was in the grip of le japonisme, a fascination with Japan, a country which had been hidden from Western eyes for a very long time and was seen as a highly exotic place. Composers from Puccini to Arthur Sullivan dipped their toes in Japanese waters.
It is puzzling that Luigi Illica, who would produce such a compelling libretto for Puccini's Madama Butterfly a few years later, would come up with such a weird and static story for Mascagni. Perhaps for audiences of that epoch, the "racy" story of a woman kidnapped for sexual slavery might have been titillating. In common with Madama Butterfly, we are witnessing the story of innocence despoiled. But Puccini's opera offers us some romance along with a remarkably naïve heroine being taken advantage of by narcissistic men!
Iris (Talise Trvigne) is a young girl living with her blind father (Matthew Boehler). She catches the eye of a wealthy fellow Osaka (Gerard Schneider) who teams up with the brothel keeper Kyoto (Douglas Williams) to trick Iris by means of a puppet play that affects her deeply.
The play is performed by three Geishas (dancers Jasmine Albuquerque, Justine Clark, and Kristen Leahy) and three Samurais (Jordan Isidore, Aaron Burr Johnson, and Sam Shapiro). Chief "Geisha" (sic) was beautifully performed by Cecelia Hall. The "sic" is because Illica's idea of a geisha as a prostitute was only his fantasy.
In the puppet play, a young woman is abused by her father, sold into sexual slavery, and rescued by a figure of transcendence who gives her a spiritual death. Unlike the puppet heroine, Iris is highly valued by her father.
Once brought to the brothel, she mistakes it for paradise and does not respond to the sexual advances of Osaka. Her father, shamed by her new "status" rejects her. She jumps into a sewer to escape and winds up in some kind of garbage dump of the mind where she encounters a Ragpicker (Samuel Levine).
We prefer our operas to tell a logical tale, rather than an Expressionistic one. We have the same unappreciative response to Pelleas et Melisande, although we love the music.
We are quite sure that James Darrah's monotoned production delighted many but we are not among them. We own up to being rather literal and if a little girl sings about a doll, we'd like to see her playing with it. If she sings about waking up from a portentous nightmare, we don't understand why she would be dancing around the stage with gleeful abandon. If she mentions her new black sandals, we don't want to see her barefoot.
The set designers (Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock) created a bare grey and white set for Act I which takes place in Iris' home. There is nothing but a white wall on which Adam Larsen's designs of shadows were projected. The evil characters occupied a space above. There was not a single element suggestive of Japan. There was a lot of stuff falling from the sky. Leaves? Snow?
For the brothel scene of Act II, everything was slick black and white with red neon. Again, nothing was suggestive of Japan nor of the 19th c. The red slab on which Osaka attempts to seduce Iris looked so incredibly uncomfortable we wondered if any seduction could have ever succeeded!
The sewer scene of Act III seemed to be a tower of discarded refuse with the ragpickers searching for anything shiny. They might have looked in the set for Act II! Should you be wondering how we thought it might have been better staged, we would have recommended a concert version, thus avoiding the problematic story! In the words of the Blind Father "Questo dramma è menzogna tutto! Malvagio in testo".
Peabody Southwell's costumes were consistent with the overall design. Innocent Iris wore an unflattering ankle-length white dress that did nothing to make her look child-like. Her blind father looked the most realistic.
The denizens of the red light district all wore black and looked like comic book villains. The so-called Geishas wore garments suggestive of S&M with lots of straps and thigh-high boots. Kyoto was dressed in a jump suit which plunged to the waist revealing Mr. Williams' handsome chest. (No complaints on that account!)
Bard SummerScape offers many more programs centered around shorter operas and excerpts, offering something for everyone. They provide a lovely respite from the barren summer landscape. Head north and enjoy!
(c) meche kroop