Stepping out of Butterfly’s shadow

Douglas Williams and Talise Travigne in Iris. The upcoming Bard performances will be the first professional stagings of the opera in America for nearly a century. (photo by Cory Weaver)

Douglas Williams and Talise Travigne in Iris. The upcoming Bard performances will be the first professional stagings of the opera in America for nearly a century. (photo by Cory Weaver)

The Bard Music Festival opens this year with Mascagni’s Iris, an opera that has one of the most lurid tales ever set to music. It’s verismo (real-life opera) with a vengeance, the story of a young Japanese woman who is sold into sexual slavery and dies trying to escape. And there’s more: When she is kidnapped, her blind father thinks that she has abandoned him, goes searching for her and catches up with her as she is being auctioned off. Sounds like fun.

For the 14th year, the Bard Music Festival, two weeks in August, is preceded by an opera production, fully staged with full orchestra and even supertitles. These operas aren’t by the composer whose work is its center. But the Festivals are “[Composer] and His World” – this year Puccini – and include much music by contemporaries and associates of the central figure. Pietro Mascagni was certainly part of Puccini’s world. His 1890 one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana originated the entire verismo movement, a huge influence on Puccini. The two composers were sometimes rivals, sometimes friends.

While “Cav” (usually performed today in a double bill with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci) is the only Mascagni opera still in the basic opera repertoire, it was not always so. At one point in Italian opera history, Iris, the seventh of the composer’s 15 operas, was being performed more often than Cavalleria Rusticana. One of its arias was included in Enrico Caruso’s first recording session. Now it has become a serious rarity, never issued on video and seldom recorded. The Bard performances will be the first professional stagings of the opera in America for nearly a century.

Conductor Leon Botstein’s program notes explain that the fall into obscurity of this opera was caused in part by the great success of Cavalleria Rusticana, and also by the competition of another Oriental-themed opera, Madama Butterfly. He concludes, “Iris was in its time an experiment that sought to integrate naturalism with symbolism into opera, using the rich palette of turn-of-the-century chromatic harmony and orchestral sonority in combination with alluring and consistently stunning melodic vocal writing. The time has come to embrace the mysterious beauty and theatricality of Iris and extract the opera from the shadow cast by Butterfly and Cavalleria. Iris is among the finest and most compact Italian music dramas ever written.”

Nunelly Kersh, Bard’s producer, was producing director of the Spoleto Festival USA for 16 years, and also held similar jobs at the Lincoln Center Festival and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The job of an opera producer, she says, “ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous,” putting a cast and creative team together. She is then the liaison as the production is planned, working very closely with the director and the designers and contracting everyone involved. For an opera performance, that’s an awful lot of people.

She’s also in charge of supplying the production’s needs, dealing with publicity and numerous other tasks. “There are a lot of moving parts,” she says, “so you need someone in the center of it making sure the left hand is talking to the right hand. But it’s such a wonderful cast and such an interesting piece that it’s a pleasure to be involved with it.” That cast includes soprano Talise Trevigne as Iris, along with mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall, tenors Gerard Schneider and Samuel Levine, bass/baritone Douglas Williams (the villain, of course) and bass Matt Boehler.

For the five performances, Botstein is leading more than five weeks of rehearsals. Kersh thinks that the effort is worthwhile. “It’s an exciting rediscovery,” she says. “I think Botstein felt that this piece is unjustly neglected. I didn’t know it and I’m very taken with it. So-called neglected masterpieces are usually neglected for good reasons, but Botstein has a genius for ferreting out pieces that were neglected for the wrong reasons.”

“There’s always something we didn’t expect” when performances start, but Kersh is looking forward to being able to sit in the audience and watch the entire opera. “It’s very absorbing,” she says. “There are no longeurs where you’re wishing she would die already.”


Mascagni’s Iris, conducted by Leon Botstein, Fridays, July 22 & 29, 7:30 p.m., Sundays, July 24 & 31 & Wednesday, July 27, 2 p.m., $25-95, opera talk, July 24, 12 noon, free, Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center Bard College, Annandale; (845) 758-7900,

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