SummerScape 2016 Pitches a Big Tent at Bard

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OPERA: Mascagni’s IRIS – a dark, neglected opus by Puccini’s friend and rival; plus

CABARET: Music, Mischief, and Oddball Chic at the House of Whimsy

From the freakish, the fractious and the “fabulous,” to the tragic, transcendent and sublime – a single summer weekend’s visit to the Bard College campus in Dutchess County, New York for the 27th annual SummerScape Festival yielded a riot of indelible impressions.

In the category Freakish, et seq., count the “House of Whimsy” – an edgy evening of pan-gender provocation and cultural protest, replete with bearded cross-dressers (some performing, some in the audience) and even an onstage dancing bear (he raps, too; more on that later).

But, first, as to the sublime, nota bene SummerScape’s excavation of the rarely-seen 1898 Pietro Mascagni/Luigi Illica opera Iris, in a first-rate new production that reveals a work of searing psychosexual symbolism, surprisingly modern resonance, and thrilling theatricality.

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OPERA: IRIS in Full Bloom

As Leon Botstein, the production’s conductor, notes, part of the modern topical urgency of Iris lies in its bold subject matter – forced sexual trafficking and enslavement. “Not only is this the stuff of today’s television police procedurals,” Botstein says, but a scandalous pandemic social blight.

Gerard Schneider (tenor), Douglas Williams (baritone, and Talise Trevigne (soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

Gerard Schneider (tenor), Douglas Williams (baritone, and Talise Trevigne (soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

Mascagni’s tantalizing Iris, however, is less concerned with sociological realism than with the depth structures below the opera’s charged and highly allusive erotic conflict. The story, ostensibly set in Japan but carrying broad symbolic implications, is of an innocent young girl indentured to a domineering blind father. Sexually and psychologically stunted, she discharges affect into potent dreams and an overheated absorption in nature. Unaware as she is of her own beauty, how can she know that bad men from the city have set their sights on her? She is easy prey.

Using a theatrical ruse to entrap her (the Act I puppet-show seduction is one of many ingenious allegorical innovations of the opera, brilliantly reimagined in this production as an eerie shadow play) these bad men abduct Iris and spirit her off to servitude in the brothels of Yoshiwara. From there, life spirals downward – both literally and symbolically (spoiler alert!) – into the sewer.

An oft-told tale of virtue traduced? Perhaps.

But Leon Botstein – not only the production’s conductor but the prime mover behind this presentation of Iris (he is also president of Bard College and artistic director of SummerScape) – observes that “most operas at this time were written to formula – and the compromise of a pure young heroine is, of course, one of those formulaic structures.” It’s the same convention that Puccini and Iris’ librettist, Illica, would deploy six years later for their own collaboration on the far more perennially popular japonisme-exploitation piece, Madama Butterfly. But what Mascagni and Illica did with convention in the case of Iris might arguably compel the greater interest, and has over decades roused the greater controversy. Iris – often dismissed, even despised – is far from just another block-and-tackle grand-opera tragedy.

“I was amazed there was such a great prejudice against it,” Mr. Botstein says of the commentary he surveyed in preparing Iris for SummerScape. “Many in the critical community – not audiences, but authors, critics – take umbrage at the opera.”

Talise Trevigne (soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

Talise Trevigne (soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

At issue, perhaps, is that Mascagni, the avowed prime progenitor of operatic verismo with his 1890 Cavalleria rusticana, should have later created so rarefied and allegorical a work as Iris. The former piece is credited with having brought something new – palpable blood-and-guts realism, grunts, screams, vernacular – to the opera stage. Iris’ tale, by contrast, is told with poetic éclat by Illica, and scored with romantic opulence by Mascagni. And while the telling is as free of sentimentality as that of Cavalleria, Iris is dense with hermetic and existential implication. Still, the work has been decried as “nihilistic,” a bleak morality tale that is downright immoral. It is, in short, not “modern” enough for some, nor old-fashioned enough for others.

Yet consider that nowhere near the same opprobrium is pitted against, for instance, Alban Berg’s Lulu, a later opera situated squarely in the lap of modernism, and thus duly celebrated for its nihilism. But is the character of Lulu, self-driven to destruction by a turbo-charged determination for power via sex, any more or less psychologically scrutable than Iris, a pitiable naïf, susceptible to but frightened by the blandishments of Eros, and choosing death in order to evade them?

Iris’ critical sin is that she is possessed of a fascinating, complex, damaged psyche – and took to the stage almost two full years before the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. She might have waited. (Indeed, she could have been material for the even later Havelock Ellis.) Botstein’s point is well taken. Iris the opera collapses categories and chronologies, and critics of a categorical stripe can’t be expected to like that. Iris the character may suffer most for having been born too early.

“And it’s difficult to stage,” says Botstein of the opera. That’s true. Even Mascagni and Illica may not have fully reckoned with the challenges posed by Iris’ novel style, for which too literal or verismo an approach does not serve. After 118 years, however, director James Darrah and maestro Botstein seem to have cracked the code, crafting a production that is as full and persuasive an argument for Iris’ viability as could be imagined. The trick is gorgeous abstraction in the context, deep and detailed commitment to the content.


Here Comes the Sun

Light and its changes carried much meaning in this production – a tale told in ascending and descending gradations and hues. At the very onset, as the score’s moody contrabass line moaned its slow ascent, the audience was gradually lifted out of velvet-black darkness into a dimly luminous dawn. A parabola of light, the bowed horizon of an unknown planet, became visible. Light then gathered into gold as Mascagni’s ecstatic, quasi-Wagnerian hymn of the sun (the “Inno del Sole,” rightly famous and oft-excerpted) mounted ravishingly. (The indispensable lighting design by Neil Peter Jampolis and the brooding, fuliginous projected cloudscapes and magical shadows created by Adam Larsen were fantastic.)

Matthew Boehler (bass) and Talise Trevigne (soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

Matthew Boehler (bass) and Talise Trevigne (soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

Principals, chorus and dancers all stood out vividly in the burnished landscape of Act I, becoming partially subsumed into the lurid red glamor of Act II’s brothel, and finally virtually merged with the blighted terrain of the murky and chthonic Act III (the jarring dramaturgy of which, by the way, itself remarkably anticipates “modernity” in proto-Brechtian fashion).

And against all the visual abstraction and symbolism, director Darrah elicited wonderfully truthful, fully human and highly detailed behavior. Precisely measured action, minute synchronization with the turns of Mascagni’s score, all served to reinforce and give body to symbolic and multivalent meanings. Darrah is adept at eliciting le geste juste – the blind man’s telling of the rosary on the plaits of Iris’ hair in Act I, for example, echoed later by a suitor’s fumbling and creepy attempts to unravel those plaits in Act II. Throughout the performance, a glance or a shrug, a faltering step or an impetuous lunge seemed to unlock the exact significance of some musical surprise in Mascagni’s highly detailed score.

Botstein, along with his exquisitely responsive American Symphony Orchestra (which Botstein has led since 1992) rendered that score with velocity, verve, and crystalline clarity, working through obstacles that have disadvantaged auditors for over a century. “Mascagni is peculiar,” Botstein concedes. “His score is so full of imagination and wonderful ideas. But his tempi and markings are from a different era. It was a very enjoyable task to rethink his music, to make the case for it today.”

Performances were superb. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams was wonderfully lubricious and authoritative as the pander Kyoto; and tenor Gerard Schneider worked his gleaming tones expertly to educe the many facets of the preening young libertine Osaka – cad, narcissist, sybarite, even callow, would-be romantic. Indeed, from the moment of Williams’ and Schneider’s entrance, perched above the horizon, ebon-clad, spying down upon Iris like two great predatory birds, they exerted a hypnotic fascination.

Bass Matthew Boehler as Iris’ domineering blind father was potent and passionate, especially in the demanding closing moments of Act I as he rages against his daughter’s presumed abandonment.

Cecelia Hall (mezzo-soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

Cecelia Hall (mezzo-soprano), Iris, Photo: Cory Weaver

And soprano Talise Trevigne as Iris was a wonder of delicate, ever-shifting moods and intensities. Her voice is supple, warm, youthful and beautiful. For stamina alone (the character is never off the stage and rarely not singing) she deserves plaudits. Her achievement was the more monumental for her complete, humane immersion in her character’s progression from blithe innocence through sexual awakening and ultimate tortured confrontation with mortality.

Also making powerful impressions were mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as the principal brothel geisha, and tenor Samuel Levine in dual supporting roles. Angular, expressive choreography by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano served to showcase the considerable talents of WIFE (a troupe consisting of Jasmine Albuquerque, Justine Clark and Kristen Leahy) and the “samurais” Jordan Isidore, Aaron Burr Johnson and Sam Shapiro.

The beautifully suggestive sets and sleek costumes were designed, respectively, by Cameron Jaye Mock and Peabody Southwell.


An Afterlife?

Iris, Bard SummerScape, Photo: Cory Weaver

Iris, Bard SummerScape, Photo: Cory Weaver

Finally, what is to be said for this opera’s reconsideration in the canon?

“I think the opera ultimately is redemptive,” says Darrah. And, indeed, for Iris the character, the opera’s closing moments do hint ambiguously at a redemption that may or may not be illusory. But what of Iris the opera?  The question is fully joined by this remarkably committed realization of the work.

“I think it’s a story that continually reveals its complexity over time, repeated viewings and listenings,” offers Darrah.

Still, if Iris has lacked for an afterlife as a mainstay of the repertory, might it perhaps be said to have lived on elsewhere? Namely, in a certain persistent, subterranean bewitchment it may have cast over Giacomo Puccini?


Puccini Goes East

Even putting aside the superficially similar Madama Butterfly, one senses, especially in late Puccini, a fascination with themes and motifs akin to the death-drive and ambiguous resolution of Iris (two-thirds of Il tritticoIl tabarro and Suor Angelica – for instance); and it’s an iron-rich, carmine red vein which might be said to have emerged fully in Puccini’s last cut at the quarries of orientalism – Turandot.

Surely the pure, sacrificial Liù of that opera – another dutiful companion to another blind father figure – is a sad sister to Iris. Moreover, the Thanatos-dominated atmosphere of Iris might be said to imbue all of Turandot, from its grisly opening decapitation hymn addressed to the blood-moon (a devilish inversion of Mascagni’s opening “Inno”) through to the very point where Puccini prematurely laid down his pen.

Much speculation surrounds Puccini’s having left Turandot unfinished, eschewing (and effectively leaving to others) the improbable task of grafting a transcendent, “happy” ending onto it. Yes, his health was failing.  But on some level, might it not have been Iris who stood athwart his ambitions? Puccini had applied lavish technique and bold musicality to creating his final allegory of love and redemption, but after composing the death of Liù (read Iris), he found himself on too shallow ground. Further escape into the subtle, ambiguous, soft-landing transcendence of Iris was no longer accessible to him.  Had he finished reworking the rival opera that had haunted his unconscious for more than a quarter century?


But the Puccini Beat Goes On at SummerScape

Iris was performed at Bard’s SummerScape Festival 2016 on July 22, 24, 27, 29 and 31 (viewed on July 31); and, while its initial run has concluded, one can hope that the production will be taken up by other presenting companies.

The good news is that the production was part of a larger and ongoing program exploring “Puccini and His World,” which continues with concerts, lectures and panel discussions at Bard’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (a remarkable, undulating stainless-steel structure designed by Frank Gehry and itself a must-visit for architecture enthusiasts) through August 14, in tandem with a film series entitled “Puccini and the Operatic Impulse in Cinema.”


CABARET: Now, What About That Bear?

"After Hours" at the Bard SummerScape Spiegeltent, Photo: Cory Weaver

“After Hours” at the Bard SummerScape Spiegeltent, Photo: Cory Weaver

An alternative, envelope-pushing strain of entertainment at SummerScape is offered by the cabaret series housed at the Spiegeltent (“Tent of Mirrors”). The tent – a glorious mobile venue of wood, canvas and glass (dubbed “The Magic Crystal” and appointed with a constellation of variously sized chandeliers) – has been installed at Bard each summer since 2006, and 2016 marks its third SummerScape stint under the curatorial auspices of the irrepressible Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (not Mr., not Ms., but Mx.). Bond is a witty, campy, chameleonesque variety performer and singer perhaps best known for being one half of the Tony-nominated (2007) cult club-act sendup duo known as Kiki and Herb (Mx. JVB was Kiki).

Asked if there is a theme or philosophy to her curatorial and hosting efforts, which earlier this season featured visits from such marquee cabaret names as Ute Lemper and designer/song stylist/raconteur Isaac Mizrahi, Mx. JVB replies, “I take nothing too seriously,” adding with Wildean insouciance, “because I take everything too seriously.”

The Spiegeltent’s program on July 29 and 30 (viewed on July 30) was billed as “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy” and featured a handpicked assortment of Mx. JVB’s own favorite freaks and misfits (epithets self-adopted and fondly embraced by the performers).

Mx. Justin Vivian Bond

Mx. Justin Vivian Bond at The Public Theater, Photo: Tammy Shell

Mx. JVB opened the evening with a riff on her recent gig covering the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia for an alternative lifestyle website (“DNC?” Mx. JVB quipped. “That’s what my mother used to call certain female troubles: ‘I’m going into the hospital for a ‘Dustin’ ‘n’ Cleansing’”). Mx. JVB then rendered a gutsy anthem entitled “22nd Century,” originally sung by Nina Simone and written, according to Mx. JVB, by one “Exuma, a Bahamian voodoo priest.”

Other notable performers included the earlier-mentioned dancing bear, who is in fact a rapper and provocateur known as Big Dipper, alleged to be an internet YouTube sensation. Big Dipper is a large, hairy man who takes to the stage with seismic impact, gyrates lasciviously, and utters witheringly foul original rap lyrics while intermittently doffing layers of clothing. (We were spared a Full-Monty moment.)

“Slanty-Eyed Mama” comprises performers Kate Rigg and Lyris Hung, the former a forceful vocalist and the latter an accomplished electronic violinist. The duo performed numbers from their play-with-music “Birth of a nAsian” [sic] and their New York Fringe Festival show “Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show.” It need hardly be explained that the act’s material – such as the raucous tirade “The Wild, Wild West” (with fabulous tonal coloration from Hung’s e-strings) – deals trenchantly and caustically with the ironies, pleasures, and pitfalls of the Asian-American experience.

Angela Di Carlo of “Attention Deficit Disorder Cabaret” appeared in a wacky-patterned neon muumuu, huge red wig and fetching orange Cleopatra eye makeup to sing a series of droll, Burt-Bacharach-inflected songlets about “oh, anything…you know…panty lines, hobo funerals, slices of cheese.” Among the souvenirs was “I Don’t Know Why I Hate Ben Affleck So Much.”

Playwright, performance artist and “gender theorist” Kate Borstein delivered a wry monologue about her own early attempts to learn to “talk like a woman.”

Mx. Justin Vivian Bond performs at the Bard SummerScape Spiegeltent, Photo: Cory Weaver

Mx. Justin Vivian Bond performs at the Bard SummerScape Spiegeltent, Photo: Cory Weaver

Pianist and “Appalachian Fatalist Songster” Dane Terry performed virtuoso piano licks, opening with an extended boogie-woogie fantasia, and culminating with beguilingly chromatic accompaniment to a story-song about a young gay teen sneaking home late one night and confronting his beer-swigging father after a first outing in full makeup. Terry achieved mordantly terrifying understatement as the ballad’s prospect of threatened incest – or vindictive abuse – seemed to rear into focus.

Finally, a heavy-metal spree by Benjamin Walter Hopkins and Liv Bruce – both scruffy and breezy in long summer dresses – ripped with numbers like “Do You Wanna Ask Me Something?” and lyrics like “I’m not exactly a boy in a dress.” Queried later as to what, then, Hopkins and Bruce, in fact, are, Mx. JVB obliged, “Oh, I’d say they identify as ‘non-binary genderqueer.’”

Audiences for the cabaret entertainment beneath the Spiegeltent are wildly eclectic – Bard students, visitors from New York City, wayward tourists of every genus and gender, and many local devotees. One local couple – Marge (a U.S. Park Ranger) and Erwin (retired from IBM) – offered that they have been attending every summer for years. “Though tonight was about the rawest we’ve ever seen.”

Though the House of Whimsy has now come down, the Spiegeltent calendar continues through August 13, offering jazz programming on Thursday nights, and Mx. JVB hosting Mary Testa and Michael Starobin with “Have Faith” on August 5; a (sold-out) benefit concert by Rufus Wainwright on August 6; Stew and Heidi Rodewald with “Notes of a Native Song” on August 12; and Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s own farewell to summer – “Angels We Have Heard When High” – on August 13.

Bard College is located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, along the east bank of the Hudson River, within easy driving distance from New York City and close to such other points of interest as Rhinebeck, Hyde Park, and Tivoli, and (on the opposite side of the Hudson) Kingston, Woodstock, Albany, and Saratoga Springs.


About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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