Sunday, July 31, 2016

Mascagni's "Iris": Purity vs. Lust, Greed & Evil

Mascagni’s Iris
Bard Summerscape
Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
July 22, 2016

Purity lives in a garden of constant euphoria
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lui: The Bard College campus in the Hudson River Valley with its monumental Frank Gehry concert hall provided a bucolic yet sophisticated backdrop for a few of our favorite things: a picnic on the lawn, the opening night of a long forgotten Mascagni opera at Bard Summerscape, and some post-show raucous dancing in the Spiegeltent (with idiosyncratic art nouveau signs over the entryway: “Magic Crystal – The Ultimate Art of Entertainment”). Mascagni’s Iris is another one of those all but forgotten gems. And when gems like these fall into oblivion, it always begs the repertoire question. No matter the reason for its neglect, Iris proved to be an eye-opening, mind-altering discovery.

The Spiegeltent at Bard
Photo credit: Allegri con fuoco
Lei: The opera itself was enchanting, dreamy and powerful – a cross between Cavalleria Rusticana (several recognizable ideas between them), Pelléas et Mélisande (lots of symbolism) and a touch of Madama Butterfly (scattered orientalism), which it actually precedes. I personally liked it so much more than Butterfly though. Its dreamy sweeping score with outbursts of dramatic emotion and, more importantly, its symbolist narrative are so much more compelling than Butterfly’s (an opera I personally never cared much for).

Iris cares for her heartless father
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lui: After a grandiose choral hymn to the Sun, Light and Love, the translucent scrim raises on a peaceful country scene. The magnificent, huge chorus (I counted over 50 singers) appears on a bridge that crosses the entirety of the stage. They look on while Iris and her blind father, Il Cieco, seem to be waking up and begin to splash water from the spring on their faces. The chorus showers them with dreamy leaves and golden rose petals from above. Iris is an innocent young maiden who is rather provincial in her naïveté. A bit like Rigoletto’s Gilda, her father has kept her out of the fray. Despite her sheltered life, Iris complains of having had a bad dream about a series of dangers befalling her doll – portent of the evils to come.

Lei: James Darrah's direction perfectly rendered the dense but often banal symbolism of the piece through a series of well-executed stage ideas. The scenic design by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock was simple but highly effective. With broad minimalist brush strokes they were able to conjure a symbolic all white landscape that was flooded with the light of the sun and enlivened by a constant shower of leaves that fell from all of the onlookers in the chorus positioned on the bridge. Though there was little that was explicitly Japanese about the design, they went for a fantasyland that was more explicitly allegorical. Interestingly, the universe created for Iris by director Darrah is a highly polarized – sets and costumes are either black or white in a very a-temporal and abstract fashion.

The apple of every man's eye
Photo credit Bard Summerscape
Lui: Before we know it Osaka, the spoiled rich prince and physical embodiment of lust, and Kyoto, the brothel owner and symbol of greed, arrive. Osaka is immediately smitten with Iris’s beauty and innocence. He has to have her. Kyoto comes up with a scheme to kidnap and add her to his bevy of prostitutes. He sees profit. The plan includes a deceptive play within the play by which they brainwash and abscond with her. Next thing she knows she's in Kyoto’s brothel, that is so different than her idyllic grounds that she thinks she’s in Paradise. Must be all those half naked ladies strutting around amid glass see-thorough huts with red lights… Iris may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but ultimately she is really too innocent for her own good. When Osaka attempts to seduce her, she claims to only want to go home to her father, back to her little house and beautiful garden. Like a Japanese Dafne, daddy’s little girl is desperate for an escape route from this Apollo in pursuit.

Osaka barges in on the pimp and his new recruit
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: Tenor Gerard Schneider stole the show. In the role of Osaka, this young Australian artist was the most impressive singer on the stage. From the moment he opened his mouth I was truly transfixed and besotted with the sheer beauty, power and virile sweetness of his singing. His is a soaring heart-wrenching tenor, an Italianate tenore spinto of the true romantic hero type. Osaka’s character is controversial and complex. In a way he reminded me of Rigoletto’s Duca, as he sings so beautifully that even if he is a crass seducer trying to get into the panties of a naive young woman, one kind of cannot help falling for him. His music is so romantic and he sounds so genuine that there must be something true in his declarations of “love,” at least when the character is in Schneider’s able hands.

Iris holds strong
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape 
Lui: The only catch is that here – unlike Gilda, Butterfly or Santuzza – the girl does not fall for her seducer, no matter how lovely and ardent he sounds, no matter how many jewels nor how much luxury he throws at her. Which makes Iris so much more interesting and powerful, despite her undeniable status as victim. From a narrative perspective, Iris’ innocence and naïveté are even more enhanced by her resisting Osaka’s attempts at seduction. Aside from being enchanted and lured by the play within a play in Act I, the heroine here does not falter and does not really fall for the evil, lusty, decadent and greedy men who surround her. Her purity remains unblemished. For what it's worth, Iris remains intransigently true to herself – a character study in integrity. As a result, the symbolism of feminine innocence spoiled by a corrupt male world comes across in an utterly powerful way.

Osaka continues to pine for his Iris
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: The slimy Osaka very quickly gets bored of Iris’ prudery. He lets her go and encourages Kyoto to send her home, but the world is a big, scary, self-interested place and she's not going to get off that easy. If she will not cooperate with brothel house rules, Kyoto threatens to punish her by throwing her into the sewer. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams in the role of the brothel’s pimp sported a very un-Japanese long platinum blonde wig over a plunging low-cut dark tunic that abundantly exposed his chest and embodied the hideous villain with steely yet thundering disdain and outbursts of violence. The other villain in the story is Il Cieco (The Blind One), Iris’ father here played by bass Matthew Boehler with an almost repulsive yet magnetic force. When he arrives to the brothel and finds his daughter in it with any angry mob that is fighting for deflowering rights, he throws a fit of rage and disowns her. Her father’s scorn is what really pushes poor Iris over the edge and, unable to bear it all, she throws herself into the sewer.

The red light district in "Tokyo"
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lui: In one of the most visually stunning moments of the production, during the musical interlude that introduces Act III, Iris can be seen behind the translucent scrim falling imperceptibly slow through the fog from the ceiling of the stage to the floor. It was incredibly dreamy and surreal. She falls in slow motion for five solid minutes through the mists of the sewer air. This is where she officially ends up in her deepest darkest cave. Act III then opens with the sewer urchins, who represent the quasi-disembodied vices of her prior pursuers, complaining of their lot in life though they somehow carry on in their lives still in the apparent pursuit of hope. Like their brothel frequenting counterparts above ground, these low-lifes are constantly on the lookout for treasure amidst the gloom and the grime. Iris regains consciousness after her fall and now thinks she is in Hell (finally she starts to figure it all out), where she grovels for a while until at the very moment she is about to give up the ghost she has a sun-filled epiphany and is suddenly and gloriously apotheosized in a blaze of solar splendor. Cue the hymn to the Sun from the opening of Act I and you have an incredibly powerful finale that somehow manages to lift you up in just the moment when you thought you had reached rock bottom.  

Iris on the verge of dropping into the sewers of the city
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: The last sequence truly had the stature of grand opera: the orchestra explodes in an outburst of powerful, inspiring music, matched by the chorus in full cry, with a ray of sun making its way through the dark cave and embracing Iris, who dies in ecstasy and almost ascends to heaven in a saintly or martyr-like fashion. In a way, it reminded me of Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco’s finale.

Lui: Iris is truly one of those demanding tour de force characters requiring the singer to really expressively ride a massive orchestration. Soprano Talise Trevigne rose to the challenge and embodied beautifully the naïveté, purity and strength of the title role. True, the character is highly symbolic and at times almost coo-koo and always very clueless, but, if one gets into the whole symbolism and allegory of it all, Iris is truly the sweetest and more compelling of heroines. Ms. Trevigne played Iris with childlike enchanting grace and was particularly memorable in her doomsday dream arias and the final apotheosis.

The apotheosis of Iris
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: A resounding thank you to maestro Leon Botstein for unearthing this Mascagni gem and leading with force and nuance the solid cast and American Symphony Orchestra. Hopefully this brilliant rediscovery of Iris will inspire other opera houses to produce it too. Looks like it was also just revived in Montpellier with Sonya Yoncheva in the title role, so, who knows, there may be more Irises on their way in the future!

Lui & Lei
For Iris life is but a dream
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape

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