Opera Theatre St. Louis stages flawless commissioned portrait of Gertrude Stein

Only someone reviewing an opera about Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) for the black press would think to compare her to Maya Angelou, but once you go there, they actually have much in common.

They both wrote a classic 20th century autobiography – Stein’s was “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” in which she saw herself through her longtime partner’s eyes.

They both wrote poetry, prose and texts intended for musical performance, though Angelou wrote much more poetry and Stein much more experimental fiction. Angelou was widely popular and Stein deeply innovative and influential; both are women writers who made a place for themselves in history.

Both women were also famous – indeed, even notorious – as party-starters and creators of festive artistic spaces where many of the greatest artists of their time met one another and discovered new things about themselves.

Stein’s role as the host of an influential, long-standing Paris salon is the dramatic center of “Twenty-Seven,” the new opera about Stein and Toklas commissioned by Opera Theatre St. Louis. Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein were among the very first collectors of Picasso, Matisse and others. The opera’s title is taken from the address of Stein and Toklas’ home in Paris where many Modern masterpieces were first displayed on the walls.

After the first world war, painters were replaced as visitors to 27 rue de Fleurus by the Lost Generation writers, like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Royce Vavrek’s libretto pulls together these two historic social scenes – and the two world wars that ended them – with an amazing economy. His lyrics (in English) are easy to follow, far closer to the populist work of Maya Angelou than Stein’s own riddling use of language.

The three talented male cast members (Daniel Brevik, Tobias Greenhalgh and Theo Lebow) each get to play an assortment of iconic painters and writers – and deliver consistently stunning group singing, with melodies composed by Ricky Ian Gordon.

But Stephanie Blythe (as Stein) and Elizabeth Futral (as Toklas) carry the burden of the show and its songs. For a couple who most deeply shared things that are difficult to dramatize, like literary collaboration, “Twenty-Seven” is a sensitive and tuneful portrait of a couple that lives for art and makes history doing so.

Opera Theatre St. Louis artistic director James Robinson directed the opera, and Michael Christie conducted the expert orchestra. It is the highest complement to both of their work to say that it was never noticeable in Thursday night’s performance. It was as if the music and the action – complex and constructed as it all was – just happened naturally. Bruce Coughlin shares credit with Gordon for the orchestrations, which were perfectly voiced for the action and performed with spirit.

Set designer Allen Moyer made a number of difficult choices – such as how do you dress a room that has some of the world’s most recognizable paintings on the walls? – with style and economy. The video and projection design by Greg Emetaz continually transformed and commented upon the action without appearing artificial. One of his panels meant to show rain streaking down a window was so realistic it bought a moment’s peace, like an actual slow rain on a warm summer night.

- Chris King, The St. Louis American, 20 June 2014