Some steamy singing

Singer Barbara Divis heats up the stage for Nevada Opera’s Pagliacci

A sample of the sizzle in Nevada Opera’s season opener,<i> Pagliacci</i>, with Barbara Nivis as Nedda and Todd Donovan as Silvio—and a 1936 Ford Phaeton as, well, a 1936 Ford Phaeton.

A sample of the sizzle in Nevada Opera’s season opener, Pagliacci, with Barbara Nivis as Nedda and Todd Donovan as Silvio—and a 1936 Ford Phaeton as, well, a 1936 Ford Phaeton.

Photo By Zoe Rose

At one point during the rehearsal of Nevada Opera’s Pagliacci, director Bill Roesch stopped the music to have Jon Fay—playing Canio—take an extra step upward on the set “so the audience can see what you are doing.”

Then Roesch bounded to the stage to show another actor how to lasciviously (and believably) run his hands over singer Barbara Divis’ body without, in Roesch’s words, “lifting her bosom like a bra from Fredericks.” When Roesch finished, it was clear that Divis, who plays the heartbreaker Nedda, will get one of the steamiest fondlings ever seen on an opera stage.

While the cast rehearsed last week at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, Roesch sculpted a show from raw materials of plot and song. Nevada Opera Artistic Director Robin Andrew Stamper conducts the performance, working with voices and music, but Roesch shepherds the drama.

“This is a very physical and sensual show,” Roesch said after the rehearsal. Much of the physicality and eroticism comes from Divis, Roesch said. “A director can’t instill or instruct that—they either feel it or they don’t. She has it in spades.”

Divis brings an earthy sexuality not often seen on an opera stage, at least since Maria Callas went to diva heaven.

“I’ve never seen a Nedda that’s as much of a spitfire as she plays it,” Roesch said. Spitfire is one word. Hot is another, Roesch agreed. “That’s a good adjective. I think the whole audience will feel that way, too.”

As the drama unfolds, Nedda has several men insanely in love with her. In some productions, it’s puzzling what magic Nedda has. Here, Divis’ Nedda is voluptuous and filled with sexual energy. You have no problem believing men would become murderous with jealousy.

There’s also a crackling energy level in this production. Bodies tumble and roll down stairs, village children turn cartwheels and a 1936 open touring car drives on stage. The car is a 1936 Ford Phaeton owned by Chris and Penny Kiechler, who drove the car down from Virginia City.

“The vintage auto helps with the physicality of this opera,” Roesch said. Roesch, who has directed such greats as Beverly Sills, said he feels that this production’s biggest strength is a powerful team of performers. “Often, you go to a show, and when it’s over, you wish someone else had been cast in a certain part. In this show, there’s a great evenness—it’s an ensemble.”

For all its fire and passion, Pagliacci is a short opera, so it’s usually presented with a second opera. Traditionally, that second opera is Cavalleria Rusticana, Roesch said.

“But they are so similar,” he said. “There’s no contrast.”

Instead, Nevada Opera is doing Suor Angelica, a Puccini opera that Roesch said is “tranquil, almost pastoral—and although there is tragedy at the end, it is a kind of religious exaltation. This is totally different from the manslaughter we see in Pagliacci, which is a violent slice of life.”

Suor Angelica has an all-female cast headed by Caroline Whisnant, who has gotten superb reviews for her big voice.

Stamper said the two operas make “a big stretch from heaven to Earth.” Where Pagliacci has a classic car on stage, Suor Angelica has a live donkey. There’s a showbiz maxim that goes: Never act with a child or an animal. The two shows feature kids, a car and a burro. So would former actor Roesch step on this stage as a performer?

“Sure," he said, with a devilish, Errol Flynn smile. "But I’d rather direct."