Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Forgotten Opera

In today's Times, a Critic's Notebook that featured reviews of two productions at Glimmerglass--Sweeney Todd, the musical, and The Crucible, the opera based on Arthur Miller's play--ended with a quick dismissal of Bard Festival's revival of Mascagni's Iris ("genuine obscurity"), which it compared to The Crucible ("a relative rarity").  

Even by opera standards, the plot as described is beyond the usual limits and sounds totally wild: the heroine is "a simple girl who is abducted and imprisoned in a brothel, where she commits suicide after being cursed by her father."  But I found myself wondering if at least some of Mascagni's likely limited musical talent that generated the resoundingly successful  one-act Cavalleria Rusticana could have produced at least some attracting music. 

Admittedly, there's little basis for assuming anything very encouraging. Years ago, I attended a Washington Opera performance of Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz, which had absolutely nothing in common with Cavalleria.  First of all, in terms of defying expectations, Mascagni, who ended his life (he lived until 1945--he wrote both Iris and Cavalleria, as well as Fritz, in the 1890s) espousing fascism in an effort to win patronage from Mussolini, wrote in Fritz a story set in some hitherto unknown Jewish rural setting that features one oft-performed duet (the "Cherry Song") between a landowner and his servant girl. There's even a rabbi in the cast--a baritone.

My assumption is that Iris has even fewer memorable musical moments than Fritz, but it apparently is performed now and then in Italian opera houses. There's a relatively recent recording starring Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. And then I consulted the Met's archives, which disclose that between 1907 and 1931, the opera was performed 16 times, with the first performance featuring no less than Enrico Caruso, Emma Eames, and Antonio Scotti. The last, in 1931, was almost as impressive: Beniamino Gigli, Elizabeth Rethberg, and Ezio Pinza!

We probably should discount those casts a bit because the Met in those years was blessed with a seeemingly endless supply of world-class singers. And there's surely no evidence to suggest that Mascagni had a hidden hit here. Some authorities have contended that his partner for the ages, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer of I Pagliacci,  the "Pag" with which "Cav" is inevitably paired by opera houses everywhere, was really the bad-luck bearer, in that he wrote some perfectly good operas such as a La Boheme, that soon after it debuted, found itself challenged--and defeated in terms of quality and popularity--by Puccini's masterpiece.

Perhaps we have Puccini to thank even for this revival of Iris, because Leon Botstein entitled the summer festival at Bard at which it was performed "Puccini and His World."

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