Il Cieco: F. Musinu
Iris: D. Mazzola
Osaka: L. Bartolini
Kyoto: B. De Simone
A Geisha: S. Farnocchia
Conductor: Massimo De Bernart
Director: Lindsay Kemp
Lucca, Teatro del Giglio
After winning top prize for Cavalleria Rusticana, Pietro Mascagni continued to write stageworthy operas that never quite caught on. Following a recent high-profile revival in Rome of this his second-most-performed work, Iris (1898) is seeing the most performances since the mid-1950s when Magda Olivero and Clara Petrella sang the title role and Gianandrea Gavazzeni was the conductor of choice. Luigi Illica, also librettist for the later Madama Butterfly, capitalized on the Art Nouveau era's infatuation with symbolism and all things Japanese in his invented tale of childhood innocence and adult cruelty and violence.
The structure of the drama allows Iris ample opportunity to express her innermost thoughts and feelings, particularly when she recounts her dreams in each of the three acts. Following a generous Wagner-inspired prelude, the opera begins with the well-known Hymn to the Sun, a choral showstopper equal to any in Boito's Mefistofele. Daughter of a blind man Il Cieco living in straited circumstances, Iris is fancied by rich Osaka. Clever Kyoto stages a puppet show for Iris in which he plants in her mind the idea that a well-dressed young man will save her from a miserable life. Moved to tears, Iris is swept away by her emotions even though her father denounces the presentation as trickery. At the height of her excitement, Iris is abducted by the men to the red-light district, Yoshiwara. Awakening in luxurious surroundings and dressed in silk, she thinks herself in the afterlife. Osaka forces himself on her, but she offers a kind of passive resistance that revolts him. To exploit her youthful beauty, Kyoto puts her on display for the admiring populace, but after being cursed by her father she dives into the sewer hole in self-punishment. Ragpickers find the dying girl, by now hallucinating. Visions of the three key men in her life-Il Cieco, Osaka and Kyoto-reveal their true natures as shameless exploiters of Iris. A reprise of the opening Hymn to the Sun marks her apotheosis, replete with ascending spirit and falling rose petals in this production.
Apart from the opening and closing chorus, the most memorable moment is the tenor aria "Apri la tua finestra" sung in Act I by Osaka, who is giving voice to the young man puppet. Iris has several long "speeches" that are somewhere between arias and recitatives in character, hence of the highest difficulty. Given the severe challenges of having to pierce through a large orchestra while inflecting an image-laden text set to a wide vocal range, the role of Iris can only be taken by a soprano at the height of her vocal and expressive powers. Although the opera is not among the longest, the singing is at full emotional throttle especially for the title character. Although the opera emphatically centers on her, the three men have ample chance to shine. One notable characteristic of Mascagni's orchestration is the considerable use of Wagner's example of resting the violins in favor of the lower strings.
Denia Mazzola brought her considerable talents to Iris, creating a memorable characterization and offering a lesson in vocal shading. Because there are no arias in the traditional sense and her music does not build toward a climax at the middle or the end, audiences might not appreciate the difficulty of singing this style of music. Ms. Mazzola reminds this reviewer of Tatiana Troyanos for her professionalism and complete involvement with her character. This is the second production Ms. Mazzola has undertaken the role of Iris; her versatility is apparent from her success in many Donizetti roles as well as in modern operas such as a well-received Dialogues of the Carmelites in Verona two seasons ago. Also noteworthy were character-role specialist Bruno De Simone as the wily Kyoto and Serena Farnocchia as a geisha and vocal stand-in for the "Iris" puppet in Act I. Young basso Francesco Musinu was rigid on stage and made scanty impression as Iris's stern but ultimately pathetic blind father, mainly because there is little movement in his voice. Born with a star-quality voice but lacking the requisite flair and presence, Lando Bartolini was lackluster as Osaka (a role sung by Caruso at the Met), but he certainly did not deserve to be booed. An embarrassing scene after the final bows involved Mr. Bartolini verbally challenging the dissenters in the upper gallery. Leading the CittÓLirica Orchestra-on this occasion stuffed into the pit and overflowing into adjacent boxes, conductor Massimo De Bernart proved himself a Mascagni expert in his idiomatic reading of the score. Having already conducted four other operas of the composer, he is a key figure in the ten-year Mascagni Project at the CEL Teatro in Livorno, the composer's birthplace.
Cocteau-like for his many developed artistic talents, Lindsay Kemp has but a short experience directing opera, yet his enormous respect for Iris was evident as was his coherent vision generally in harmony with the special world of the young girl. His stylized approach incorporated more ballet-like movements (including a camp "Dying Swan" death for the heroine) than this verismo-era work can sustain. The principals-if not the chorus and comprimarios-must have a sense of directness, otherwise the aesthetic basis is compromised. During her longer "monologues", Iris must convey spontaneity by suggesting the varied thoughts that cross her mind, but here Ms. Mazzola was too caught up in gesturing. Smaller, more contained movements would have better suggested Iris's youth. Had they rigorously worked at a convincing presentation, the chorus might have been more effective using Kemp's approach; as it was, there was no interaction among them. On the other hand, their onstage placement (especially the small men's chorus in Act I) was on the level of the great directors of the 1950s like Lunt, Guthrie and Webster. The opening Hymn to the Sun set against a backdrop of Mt. Fuji was marred by the full chorus's disorganized exit. Kemp's experience with Japanese theater was evident in his use of delightful Bunrakyu-type puppets, manipulated from the rear by one or two handlers all in black. The beautiful costumes for Iris, including a kimono of gradated shades of pink with applied irises, and the inter-act curtain with stylized tree and clouds were enchanting, but a gold screen with a large octopus design was a perplexing element in this highly symbolic opera.
This centennial offering of Iris at Lucca was part of the CittÓLirica initiative, which includes three opera co-productions each year shared by the theaters of Lucca, Livorno and Pisa. The performance was frequently interrupted by applause.