Note to our readers: We will be resuming regular postings of this blog at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season in late September 2016. In the meanwhile, here is a comment on a performance we attended this summer in upstate New York.Each year, the festival at Bard College, led by its president, Leon Botstein, exhumes an opera unfamiliar to today's audiences. This summer it was the turn of Iris. Mascagni’s opera (1898) was born in the heyday of Italian verismo, between two of Puccini’s great successes, La Bohème and Tosca. The prolific composer of the Cavalleria rusticana (1890), a perennial favorite, was ever intent on varying his subject matter and style with each new work. Iris, his seventh opera, reflects the contemporary vogue for orientalism. The Bard production (as seen by us on July 29, 2016), staged by James Darrah, designed by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, concedes little to the exoticism of the libretto.
Iris is surely one of the most cruelly abused of all the many ill-fated heroines of opera. Knocked unconscious and kidnapped by a procurer, unknowing that the place in which she is held is a brothel, and still a virgin, she flings herself into a sewer when her father, literally and figuratively blind, curses her for sins she has not committed. In the end, she is transfigured by the sun god she worships.The opera enjoyed considerable success in the early 20th-century, only to see its popularity wane soon thereafter. Mascagni himself brought Iris to New York in 1902 as one offering of his disastrous American tour. The Met staged the opera in three separate seasons with starry casts: first in 1907 with Eames and Caruso, in 1915 with Bori conducted by Toscanini, and in 1931 with Rethberg and Gigli. In all, it achieved only a paltry company total of sixteen performances. Sporadically revived in Italy through the 20th century, in recent years there has been a flurry of interest in Mascagni’s all but forgotten work, with its many pages of full-throated melody and its rich orchestral palette.
Conducted by Botstein, well cast (with an outstanding young tenor Gerard Schneider) and, for the most part, intelligently staged, the Bard Iris made a strong case for the opera’s musical qualities. The libretto could not be salvaged.Three recorded excerpts convey Mascagni’s lyric gift. The first, “Apri la tua finestra,” a serenade sung to Iris by her would-be seducer Osaka, has appealed to generations of tenors. The gentle strumming of the strings is flattering accompaniment to beautiful timbre and scrupulous phrasing. Osaka, in the guise of Yor, the son of the sun god, urges the innocent girl to open her window and yield to his entreaties. Antonio Cortis, active in the 1920s and 1930s, supplies tone of beguiling sweetness and an impeccable line in this 1929 recording.
In Act II, Iris awakens in the sumptuous bordello which, in her naiveté, she mistakes for Paradise. Osaka, more urgently and erotically, continues his seduction, extolling, one after the other, the physical attributes of his prey. Giuseppe di Stefano, in a live performance from Rome (1956), is here at the peak of his form, the character’s desire manifest in his voluptuous timbre. The Iris is Clara Petrella, in the 1950s one of Italy’s foremost sopranos.
In response to Osaka’s ardent pleas, Iris refuses physical love in one of Mascagni’s most original arias, “Un dì, ero piccina.” She recalls hearing the tale of a young girl who dies in the embrace of an octopus. The lesson is clear: the act of love leads to death. The composer punctuates the soprano’s precipitous recital with outbursts of emotion. In this 1931 recording, Maria Farneti, a Mascagni specialist, finds the happy balance between beauty of tone and clarity of diction, indispensable to an artist in the verismo tradition.
The opera's most famous pages are its prelude and "Inno al sole (Hymn of the Sun)." Iris concludes with the stirring choral theme. This version is conducted by Giuseppe Patanè.