Opera Theatre's '27' is serious fun

Balancing humor and the serious questions of human existence is a tricky business. Mozart managed it in his operas; Wagner found a way in “Die Meistersinger.” That’s rare: few composers and librettists try to mix the two.

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek may not be at that exalted level, but in “27,” which had its world première on Saturday night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, they make members of the audience laugh, then force us to consider matters of life and death.

“27” (the name is taken from 27 rue de Fleurus, where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived and held their famous Paris salon) presents their story chronologically, from before World War I through World War II, to Stein’s death and beyond. It begins with the widowed Alice knitting and remembering; her work calls up the past and gives flesh to her memories.

Although it claims a prologue and five acts, the opera zips by in just 90 intermissionless minutes, with five outstanding performers taking on a world of characters.

Well, three of them take on a world of characters. Stein is sung by the formidable mezzo Stephanie Blythe, for whom OTSL commissioned the work; Toklas is the (equally formidable, but in a very different way) soprano Elizabeth Futral.

Everyone else — Picasso, Man Ray, Hemingway, assorted paintings, soldiers, wives and “Empty Frames” — is taken by a remarkable trio of Gerdine Young Artists. Tenor Theo Lebow, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik, in a tour de force of quick costume and character changes, are collectively and individually a delight. They’re examples of OTSL’s standards with its GYAs; each of them seems ready to step out into a serious career.

Blythe is a force of nature whose large frame supports a stupendous voice of great range. She made an utterly believable Stein, secure in her absolute rightness, hilarious and sometimes cruel in her epigrams. (“I’ve met many geniuses in my time,” she tells Man Ray. “You, my dear, are a photographer.”) She surrenders in a belated trial of conscience, over the way in which she and Alice survived the horrors of World War II as American Jews in Vichy France.

Alice knits the world of the opera into being; Futral knits the show together, a quicksilver character who dances around the flat supporting, dismissing, defending Gertrude, offending others, and singing with conviction, clarity and beauty. Stein clearly loves Alice, but she’s gruff and self-centered in a way that she would no doubt claim as the prerogative of genius. (“Genius” is a word that’s thrown around a lot in “27.”) Gertrude is most of Alice’s world, and Futral shines in this pivotal role.

Singers love Gordon’s music because he knows what works vocally and what doesn’t, and because he cares about getting it right. He has said that he hopes to see the day when opera and musical theater meet, and “27” helps to bring it closer. There are hummable tunes and recurring themes, drama and sweetness, in a well-wrought score. Vavrek is Steinian without stealing Stein and keeps the story moving, for a clever, witty libretto.

Director James Robinson and conductor Michael Christie have given shape and form to Gordon and Vavrek’s creation. Robinson’s work is full of memorable touches: As Alice knits and remembers, a figure rises up from the blanket forming on the floor; when Gertrude dies and leaves the stage, Alice still holds the shape of the emptiness where her life’s love lay. Christie led his singers and section of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a memorable performance.

Set design Allen Moyer has created a flexible, evocative world; costume designer James Schuette found a clever solution to the costume changes. Wig and makeup designer Tom Watson and choreographer Sean Curran are indispensable.

- Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 15 June 2014