Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the long-term president of the Bard College, has taken upon himself for many years the task of resuscitating forgotten scores that he deemed worth having a second chance. His most recent and meritorious initiative was the inclusion of a fully staged version of Mascagni’s seldom performed Iris as part of Bard’s SummerScape, a seven weeks series of theatrical, musical and choreographic performances.

Every year, SummerScape’s focal point is the Bard Music Festival, dedicated to the oeuvre and extended world of a single composer. This year’s choice was not Mascagni but Giacomo Puccini. Just reading the headlines of the festival’s two sections – “Puccini and the Italian Musical Culture” and “Beyond Verismo” – one can immediately understand the reasoning behind selecting Mascagni’s Iris as this summer’s opera at Bard. After first performances in Rome (1898) and at La Scala one year later, with Hariclea Darclée under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, Iris has rapidly fallen into desuetude with very few revivals. Many reasons could be given for this opera’s ungrateful fate but the main one is probably an unfair comparison with the enormously successful Madama Butterfly, composed several years later. The two operas share a librettist, Luigi Illica, their action is set in Japan, and both heroines commit suicide being deceived by unscrupulous men. But while Puccini’s opera is a typical example of verismo, Mascagni’s is not. There is no love duet, no melodramatic pathos, and just a few musical patterns that sound unequivocally Oriental. 

The plot improbably moves from Iris waking up at dawn, near her blind father, being abducted by a wealthy admirer and his helping procurer, to a second act where the innocent girl is paraded in front of ogling eyes in Edo’s pleasure district, to a third act where she is surrounded by scavengers in the sewer she jumped into trying to commit suicide. The characters, with the soprano named after a flower and the men bearing the names of Japanese cities, lack complexity. They are not realistically depicted. Neither do they evolve along the plot. Each represents a single trait: purity (Iris), lust (Osaka), greed (Kyoto), and uncompromising control (Il Cieco).

Despite a convoluted plot, full of symbolic references and implausible, the opera’s music is truly noteworthy. From the initial solo for double bass, with its Wagnerian connotations, that opens the atmospheric orchestral prelude to the final chorus before full silence, the music rises and ebbs lavishly. There are wonderful melodies; the orchestral palette is imbued with gloriously diverse textures. It must be difficult for instrumentalists to constantly navigate unchartered territories but that’s what the members of the American Symphony Orchestra do most of the time at the behest of their indefatigable music director. I haven’t heard the ensemble sounding so balanced, and at the same time so full of color, with strings and wind instruments blending effortlessly, in a long time.

Vocally, it was a well above average evening as well. The chorus was very secure in its every intervention. As Iris, soprano Talise Trevigne sang with a strong, confident, but insufficiently malleable voice. She easily conjured the innocence and sincerity of the character in “Un di, ero piccina”. With some slight rough patches in the upper register, Gerard Schneider acquitted himself well of the difficult task of singing the delicate tessitura in the serenade “Apri la tua finestra”. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams again proved his versatility as the villain Kyoto. Bass Matthew Bochler gave dramatic shape to Iris’ father and mezzo Cecelia Hall was a remarkable presence in the small role of a Geisha.

I was less convinced by the mise-en-scène. Director James Darrah and his team did little to alleviate the perceived lack of unity of the story and to compensate for the vagaries of the plot. In sets designed by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, there was no attempt to find a visual equivalent to the very important Hymn to the Sun brought back at the end of the opera as a sign of the heroine’s redemption.

Several unnecessary details distracted the viewers from Iris’ unfolding tragedy in the dramaturgically very important second act. The supposedly impassioned Osaka arriving to woo Iris is seen calmly removing his jacket and placing it on a hidden hanger. Kyoto’s garment was slit, letting the singer parade his pectorals for no particular reason. Visitors to Yoshiwara wander between a crowded set of red dwellings, looking vaguely modern, while dancers with blonde wigs twist and turn aimlessly on the roofs.

Musically though it was a very rewarding evening. In the past couple of decades, many of Leon Botstein’s attempts to bring again forgotten scores in the public eye had no lasting consequences. Mascagni’s Iris deserves better.