Amina Eris and Pene Pati
Amina Eris and Pene Pati | Credit: Petr Dyrc

Many song recitals cross borders in one way or another, moving about the worlds of languages, eras, styles, and moods. It takes real singer-adventurers, though, to make a recital feel like a National Geographic tour. For soprano Amina Edris and tenor Pene Pati’s April 23 program at Cal Performances, we didn’t need any visas to travel with these gifted and highly personable guides. Even if the evening went on a bit too long, it was an exciting voyage most of the way.

The title of the recital was “Voyages,” which itself had a bit of travel’s thrilling displacement. Is the word English — or French, as Edris pronounced it? Both, of course, and more, like these two singers whose careers have crisscrossed the planet.

Amina Edris
Amina Edris | Credit: Capucine de Chocqueuse

Well known to Bay Area audiences, both Edris and Pati have international backgrounds and, increasingly, international fan bases. Edris, born in Egypt and raised in New Zealand, honed her craft first in the United Kingdom and later at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and as an Adler Fellow; among other notable roles, she sang Cleopatra in San Francisco Opera’s 2022 premiere of John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra. Pati, Samoan by birth, also studied in New Zealand, the U.K., and the Bay Area and starred — while still quite young — as the Duke of Mantua in SF Opera’s 2017 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Edris and Pati — now married — have increasingly centered their work in France.

Three Maori songs opened the recital, performed with the relaxed appeal of a folk music session, Pati playing guitar. From there, we were wafted to the U.K. with songs by John Ireland and Benjamin Britten. Pati gorgeously delivered Britten’s settings of popular chestnuts (“The Water Is Wide” and “The Last Rose of Summer”), the tenor’s tender high register marking the pathos of these elegiac pieces. Pati’s operatic side came to the fore in two other Britten compositions — theatrical, full of color and variety, sometimes elegant but edgy as well when called for.

Edris followed with a set of songs by the American composer William Bolcom. She sang the comic love scene “Toothbrush Time,” a little monologue about the morning after, with raunchy theatricality. In “Over the Piano,” the comedy spilled over to include the superb collaborative pianist Robert Mollicone — himself a former Adler Fellow and longtime coach for SF Opera, and clearly a longtime friend of the singers. Edris’s silvery coloratura and wide vocal range came into play in a third Bolcom piece, “Waitin’.”

Pati followed with a gorgeous setting of Emily Dickinson’s “That I did always love” from Jake Heggie’s 2014 Newer Every Day: Songs for Kiri (that is, for another New Zealander, Kiri Te Kanawa).

Samoa was the next stop on the tour. Pati (with ukulele and guitar) sang first a children’s song full of gusto and humor and then a soaring melody about a soaring bird, inflected with a lovely yodel. Edris kept up the personal touch by singing two Egyptian songs, joined by Tunisian oud player Ala K.

Pene Pati
Pene Pati | Credit: Simon Fowler

The last stop was France and a set of early 20th-century art songs by Lili Boulanger and Henri Duparc. Here’s where the tour started to feel a little long and disjointed. While Edris and Pati gave us beautiful moments in this set, it was hard, after an already long program with no intermission, to stay engaged with so many similar sad songs. It didn’t help that the texts weren’t projected — made available only in small type in the program book, hard to read in the dimly lit Zellerbach Hall.

I loved that the singers worked to shake up the traditional, and sometimes stodgy, recital format with personable songs and anecdotes from their homelands. But the details of timing and trajectory need to be more closely considered.

Opera is at the center of these two singers’ careers, and that’s where the program ended, with the sparkling Act 1 duet from Jules Massenet’s Manon, when the suave Chevalier des Grieux sweeps the naive, convent-bound Manon off her feet.

The encore was another duet, this time the dawn scene (“Nuit d’hyménée”) from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette — again, perhaps too long a choice for an encore after two hours of singing. These brilliant young singers, though, showed no sign of fatigue in this elegiac, passionate farewell scene.