Send in the clowns

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  June 19, 2007

Tenor Michael Hayes had the best credentials (major roles with the New York City Opera) and sang the heroes of both Cav and Pag — which means he got to sing what might be the most famous tenor aria ever written. Canio’s “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on your greasepaint”) shows the clown trying to hide his all-too-real tragic awareness of his wife’s infidelity before he’s driven to committing a real on-stage murder. Hayes has an imposing voice and presence, though his acting is more effortful than convincing. He was better as a crazed Canio than as the caddish Turiddu, the Sicilian soldier who knocks up Santuzza and then goes back to his now-married ex-girlfriend. Tall and red-haired, Hayes doesn’t look very Mediterranean without make-up, and since the singers chose their own clothes to suggest the characters they were playing, it was a big mistake for him to dress in designer short-sleeved shirts and a Rolex. He looked more like a frat boy at a country-club bar.

A performer’s choice of clothing is always important — imagine low-cut gowns in, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Chianakas’s dark dress was appropriately folk-like, but mezzo-soprano Janice Edwards’s glittering black cape, earrings, high heels, and dress with a high slit up the back conveyed more society hostess than peasant mama. As Lola, Turiddu’s flirtatious ex-girlfriend, young mezzo Jacque Wilson wore a scarlet strapless gown that shrieked of coming-out parties and debutante balls. Maryann Mootos (Nedda) is a Geena Davis look-alike with a charming and accurate soprano voice; she acted like Geena Davis too. Wearing a dress with more flounce than slink might have helped her get closer to an authentic style. The men who wore formal dark pants but no jackets, with a simple vest or suspenders over their white shirts, allowed for an easier suspension of disbelief.

The singer who walked away with the show was baritone Jason Stearns, who wore only black — perfect both for his witty and philosophical delivery of the Pagliacci Prologue and for his vengeful Tonio, the deformed clown who makes a pass at Nedda, then squeals to Canio about her affair with Silvio. His acting was sly, subtle, yet dramatically potent; he even changed the way he walked for each role. And he had the best voice in the cast. I can’t wait to hear — and see — him again.

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival week brings together a worldwide contingent of artists, instrument makers, and enthusiasts. As opposed to BEMF’s tradition of concentrating on a particular national culture, this year the focus was on a theme, “Feast of the Gods,” which combined mythology and images of feasting. The centerpiece opera was probably the festival’s most ambitious and professional effort since it began in 1980: the North American premiere of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s elaborate 1678 tragédie lyrique, Psyché. The audience ate it up — especially the several ascents and landings of one or another deus ex machina and the dazzling costumes by Anna Watkins. Thanks to soprano Carolyn Sampson, in the title role of the beautiful princess who is rewarded for her irritating curiosity and vanity by being made immortal, and an exciting, biting performance by Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin (the heroine of BEMF’s resurrection of Conradi’s Ariadne in 2003) as the vengeful Venus who feels threatened by Psyché’s beauty, there was less of the textbook posing that has plagued previous BEMF productions. The opera may be an allegory about Louis XIV and his mistress, or about the union of the Soul and Love (Psyche ends up marrying Cupid — opening night, the very young Frederick Metzger, from the PALS Children’s Chorus), but, at least in this production, it seemed more like a story about the rivalry between two fashion models. “It takes only one person preferred over us to make life miserable,” Venus laments. Is there an opera with shallower central characters?

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