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From a Bang to a Whimper at Bard

Opera review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jul 23rd, 2016

According to Friar Dante del Fiorentino’s memoir Immortal Beloved (1954) of Giacomo Puccini, when Madame Butterfly was premiered at La Scalla, amid hoots and catcalls, someone shouted from the balcony during the aria “Spira sud mare” that Puccini stole from Mascagni. The humiliated lead actress refused to sing. Puccini smoked and punctuated his conversation with eloquent insults. The show did not go on. Mascagni was in the audience and retorted to his followers that “The opera has fallen, but it will rise again.”

It rose again to be perhaps the greatest opera in the repertoire—an opinion that is not uncommon. As part of Bard’s Summerscape focus on Puccini, they have revived Mascagni’s Iris, the first opera with a Japanese setting at a time when Japanese art had just had a profound influence on French impressionist paintings. The provocative concept of raising the issue of Mascagni’s end-of-the tunnel Romantic music remains of interest because Puccini alone managed to ignore the Modernist tsunami; his retro-Romanticism has even survived postmodern exasperation.  

Since Mascagni’s notion of Japanese culture was embarrassingly ignorant, the Bard production has ignored faux historical setting yet inherited the burden of the script. Everyone has a Japanese name except Iris, a flower. This attractive flower has been kidnapped from her blind father. In the brothel she refuses her would-be patrons. She suffers street auction. Her father in the crowd curses her. She throws herself into a sewer where she dies amid a horde of rag pickers who strip her jewelry and clothes.

There is no character development anywhere in the opera. Iris does nothing for herself except refuse.  We are spared her rape. We pity Iris and her father.  The script lumbers at the lowest ladder step of Aristotle’s three levels of drama. We are provided no reason to care for Iris, but we can enjoy her humiliation, death, and ascension into light.

Production sets are over-the-top. While such an approach is dangerous, the first act succeeds beyond expectation with culture stripping, gorgeous lighting, and elemental poetry-celebrating light. An unusual grandiosity is achieved, except that if one sits anywhere on the orchestral level one cannot read the power-point translation gloss, due to the luminosity on stage. Perhaps typescript size might be slightly enlarged, or perhaps orange typescript employed instead of white. Yet that remains the least of this production’s problems.

Act two occurs in a brothel. Everyone sports leather in the darkness—this is your typical international S & M brothel franchise bathed in sinister red light and long legs. Dismissing suitors, Talise Trevigne as Iris laments her fate. Trevigne’s performance, amid arrogant leather-wrapped clichés, provides translucent pleasure as the orchestra cavorts through the arresting melodramatic death-throes of Romanticism—becoming Exhibit A on the subject of why Romanticism died, and why Modernists were so furiously sure that their nascent art towered above late-Romantic diehards pandering to crowd sentimentality.

Mascagni’s music is not as bad as I’m making it out to be, but Mascagni awkwardly appears as a talented musician in search of a serviceable script. Some people may thrill to the sound of Mascagni bound in leather whips or gags, yet I prefer the crack of wit to impotent whips.  

Since the plot has nowhere to go, Iris must commit suicide, then rise to heaven with one last solo to go amid a seething morass of overdressed rags. This offers verismo realism as bankrupt pageant. We pity mutating rags shuffling about the stage like a demented virus, but don’t care a fig about such anonymous, silent blotches.

What began with an explosion of light concludes with whimpering starvation and oblivion saved by a Christian heaven no person in Japan expects. We are left with a long list of reasons why Iris is so rarely produced. Iris does not even merit a footnote in Taruskin or Grouse.