Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

Based on the life, or perhaps rather the persona of the iconic Gertrude Stein, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek have gifted us with 27, a taut, witty and affecting new piece of lyric theatre. The duo has crafted a fast-paced, multi-faceted, compressed overview of the writer’s life that touches on all of the high points that occurred at the legendary salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, resulting in a sort of highly engaging “Gertrude Stein for Dummies.”

Mr. Vavrek’s lean and mean script borrows its succinct cadence from Ms. Stein’s style and seems to have inspired Mr. Gordon to respond with a score that is equal parts effervescence, tenderness, and confrontation. Throw in more than a few moments of defiance, deliberation and defeat, and you get an idea of the variety of the aural palette. Both Gertrude and her “wife” Alice B. Toklas are individually characterized, and have a definable and consistent musical identity. There are unifying recurring motifs, such as Gertrude urging her visitors to “peruse, peruse” the art on her walls. Too, her musings of the meaning and responsibilities of being a genius are threaded through the episodic structure.

I will not soon forget the final, powerful scena in which Stein justifies the choices she actively made, and reconciles with the choices that were thrust upon her. Mr. Gordon beautifully alternates her vocal line between demonstrative jagged leaps, and introspective melismatic musings. Arguably the highpoint of the score was the moving love duet for Gertrude and Alice that was characterized by sensuous, meandering, intertwining thirds, murmured endearments and honest devotion.

In a brilliant stroke, the cast was completed by only three men who at times functioned as a finely-tuned Greek Chorus, but at others found them playing multiple major characters, to include (humorously) three nondescript “wives of geniuses.” All the usual suspects were there: Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, to name a few.

It cannot be overstated that the peerless Stephanie Blythe was a tour de force as Gertrude Stein. Ms. Blythe’s instrument is one the glories of present day operatic life. She is a consummate artist who knows how to make every moment count. Physically imposing and absolutely right for the part, she commands the stage at every moment, as inscrutable as the terra cotta sculpture of Stein in the National Portrait Gallery. We miss her when she leaves the stage, however briefly. Although her commanding mezzo can certainly fill a room with no effort, Ms. Blythe finds a varied and well-balanced approach to her assignment. Her lyrical singing is beautifully negotiated and her cooing with Alice encompasses a grand palette of affectionate colorings. But when the situation warrants, and she pours on the steam, you are instantly served notice that this is one of the powerhouse voices of our time.

As the more reticent Alice, Elizabeth Futral has to do more with less fireworks and she succeeds admirably. Her lyric soprano has assumed a pleasing patina of maturity, and she has developed into somewhat a sought after specialist of contemporary roles. As the deferential life partner, she uses her diminutive figure to advantage and summons forth an endearing waif-like quality. Her singing is silvery and secure, and she paces herself very well so that when she does have a dramatic outburst (like when she decries violence) it is all the more startling and effective.

Given the artistic stature of these two women, OTSL invested a lot in the three Gerdine Young Artists it cast in the three men’s roles. Their trust was well-placed. Tenor Theo Lebow spends the most time of any of them as one character over the course of the evening and he scores a considerable success in recurring appearances as Pablo Picasso. His sound is gleaming and fresh, and he tore into the role’s key moments with ferocity, tempering the outbursts with singing that displayed a sweet sheen. Tobias Greenhalgh’s riveting baritone was well-suited to the arrogant Leo Stein, with power to spare, and he also brought a humorous sensitivity to Man Ray. Daniel Brevik’s imposing bass-baritone could rattle the rafters one moment and be lullingly conversational the next. Individually these three young men were exceptional, and together, they rewarded us with many impressive trios, accounting for some of the score’s best moments.

Conductor Michael Christie led an assured reading in the pit, and elicited a sense of spontaneity and discovery that were infectious. The orchestra has never sounded better or more vibrant, finding a beautiful arc to the piece and filling it with haunting detail. Allen Moyer’s evocative set design was masterful. Floor to ceiling ‘wallpaper’ panels with oversized patterns were hung at disparate heights and allowed for actors to appear and exit quite magically between the hangings. The silvery-blue color suggested eternity, and large, ornate empty picture frames were propped up or scattered about the space. A solid chair-cum-throne for Gertrude and a smaller, homier chair and side table for Alice were almost all that completed the look, but these elements provided all that was needed, including a huge sign bearing the number 27 which was flown in and out at opportune moments.

James F. Ingalls has contributed his usual excellent lighting design, one that incorporates a terrific video and projection design from Greg Emetaz. James Schuette’s spot-on costumes for the leading ladies were complemented by the men’s basic, neutral vest and knickers, to which clever, character-specific pieces were effortlessly added and subtracted. Director James Robinson has few equals when it comes to making new, untried pieces come to life on a stage. His clarity, specificity and imagination have made a potent case for 27. He has helped his performers find a truth in all they do, all the while balancing that with theatrical stage business that amuses and informs. I loved Hemingway striding on, rifle under his arm, and dragging with him a dead rhinoceros he had bagged. Ditto the fidgety, fussy business concocted for a tippling F. Scott Fitzgerald. How about the giddy visual of that life-sized, stuffed pet dog on wheels? Or the enormous piece of knitting that Alice had created suggesting years of blissful routine. But Mr. Robinson could also turn all this whimsy on its head, and suddenly turn deadly serious. When Gertrude was accused of, and exposed for colluding with the enemy in wartime, two of the lads “trapped” Gertrude in the docket by piling empty picture frames over her, suggesting a piling up of evidence. A triumph.

- James Sohre, Opera Today, 8 July 2014