Festival Opera pairs ‘Sins,’ ‘Pagliacci’ and their complex leads
By Lou Fancher
When soprano Laura Bohn and tenor Alex Boyer join Festival Opera in a double-bill performance June 24-25 at Lesher Center, they face formidable tasks.
The pairing of Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” ballet chanté and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s short two-act opera “Pagliacci” is unusual. The latter is presented often enough with Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” for the two 19th-century operas to have been collectively nicknamed “Cav and Pag.” Matching Pagliacci’s voluptuous score and melodramatic story of Canio the clown who murders his unfaithful wife, Nedda, with Weill’s gritty Seven Deadly Sins and a straight-shooting libretto by Bertolt Brecht flaunts tradition. The Walnut Creek-based company’s program — with Bohn in Sins; Boyer in Pagliacci — represents either innovative programming or possible affront.
But this is hardly the greatest challenge facing Bohn and Boyer. Instead, the true tests arrive in roles that require stamina, multi-layered expression and the impossible business of portraying characters who often act detestably but must be seen as sympathetic and worthy of forgiveness. Oh, and there’s the matter of singing well also.
Bohn has had what she calls a rigorous spring, with back-to-back performances and globe trotting. Preferring to fully devote herself to each production without distraction but performing works that demand significant preparation, a “what score when” calendar keeps her current. Regular meditation, yoga and running maintain her physical fitness. “If I don’t move my body, my instrument isn’t ready,” she says.
On show days and even in rehearsals, conserving or expending energy demands careful calculation. “In our seven-hour rehearsals, how much to sing at 75 percent versus 30 percent is something I’m figuring out. We don’t just stand there, we’re generating material. Being in that open, creative space to try things takes energy.”
The split personality role of Anna I and Anna I I— some productions cast them as sisters — is shared by Bohn with dancer Sonja Dale as Anna II. Although Bohn’s role as Anna I who visits seen American cities in search of money to build a family home is largely sung, director-choreographer Mark Foehringer’s contemporary dance stretches her physicality. “There are parts where I bear Anna II’s weight or she lifts me — while I’m singing. It’s cabaret-style music, and thought it’s in my middle (vocal) range, I have to have clarity in speaking and singing. It’s gritty, with less high, precious notes: I have to avoid over-singing it.”
Similarly, while Pagliacci is written for a powerful voice and far from a restrained baroque piece or smooth, lyrical bel canto, balance is necessary. “It’s for a larger instrument, melodramatic” says Boyer, “so that part is natural for me. But it’s difficult if you show too much emotion because there’s a lot to sing. In rehearsals if I start shouting, I realize it pulls me away from the character.”
Though Canio is not a villain, he’s also not a Romeo. He has a violent streak, but also must sing the famous aria, “Vesti la giubba,” as if his heart is breaking.
“He has to be the sort of person a woman would fall in love with, but not want to stay with. He breaks down, cries and sings ‘laugh while your heart is breaking,’ but he also shouts horrible things about crushing his wife under his foot,” Boyer says. “It would be easier if he was 100 percent psychotic.”
Maestro Michael Morgan conducts Festival Opera Orchestra for Pagliacci, Bryan Nies leads The Seven Deadly Sins; Lynne Morrow directs the Festival Opera Chorus.