It wouldn’t be contrary to suppose that an opera about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and how they entertained the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other “geniuses” in their Paris salon, would be a tale of nothing more than cleverness and saviour-faire. It might even be expected, and if it were, the audiences would love it. But composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek have not taken such a lighthearted (and in retrospect, simplistic) approach in “27,” their world premiere that debuted at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Saturday night.
Instead the creators offer us not trifles, but trenchant commentary; not lightheartedness, but a look into the heaviness of life itself. Well, there’s some lightheartedness, and it’s all tightly gift-wrapped in a clever, often humorous, little 90-minute package with exalted orchestrations, searing lyrics, and stellar performances that transcend the physical immediacy of witnessing them firsthand.
“27,” the title taken from the address of Toklas and Stein’s apartment/salon in Paris, opens on Toklas knitting as she sings, “Knit, One, Purl One, Gertrude Stein,” foreshadowing the intricately knitted relationship between Toklas and Stein (“Her secretary, her biographer, her wife,” Toklas sings) and in turn, the complicated, emotionally needy artists who craved Stein’s approval and who flew toward her like moths to a flame, to alternately bathe in her light or get scorched by her fickle and scorching dismissal.
Stephanie Blythe, who plays Gertrude Stein and for whom the opera was commissioned, is a formidable stage presence, as large in stature as Stein’s legend, and with a powerful voice that rocks the rafters with a verve and power that mirrors Stein’s surety of confidence. There is no self-doubt in her convictions, nor hesitation. She’s all full-steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, and the audience is her submissive target. She can cut a sycophant to the quick, as she does with photographer Man Ray, who having tried his hand at painting, shows it to Stein. “You, my dear, are a photographer,” Stein coldly states, utterly crushing him.
As Toklas, Elizabeth Furtral is the perfect complement to Stephanie Blythe, even as Toklas was the perfect complement to Stein. She is sweet and somewhat demure—an ornamental gondola next to Blythe’s battleship. But she loves Stein with such conviction that all will yearn for such a love, and Furtral sings with beauty as rich as her performance in her crisp soprano voice that never wavers nor veers from her intended emotion.
Every other character—and there is a herd of them—are remarkably portrayed by three Gerdine Young artists, who also supply much of the humor. From Hemingway’s dragging of a full-sized dead rhinoceros onto the stage or Fitzgerald’s entrance pulling a fully-stocked liquor cart, to Picasso, Matisse, the wives or figures within the large picture frames that adorn the stage, the trio is remarkable in both acting and voice. Tenor Theo Lebow, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik might not be the heart and soul of the opera (those sobriquets belong to Blythe and Furtral), but they are certainly its panache, and a total joy to watch and listen to. On two occasions, they briefly hit a chord constructed by composer Gordon that is so pure, so extraordinary, the hairs on the back of one’s neck bristle, as though a jolt of electricity has just been sent through the theater.
Gordon’s compositions are stunning. The orchestrations are intricate and lovely, which in turn are contrasted by the upfront nature of the main vocal line, combining opposites in one marvelous conclusion. The thought lingers that these two opposites mirror Toklas and Stein; Toklas the delicate and lovely orchestration and Stein the brash vocal line. Vavrek’s libretto is crisp, and fortunate to have read the libretto; it is as fine as any poetry and can stand on its own as such.
Director James Robinson has done a remarkable job to bring this enlightened work to life with some truly stunning visuals created by cleverness rather than extravagance, and conductor Michael Christie brings the remarkable score to vivid realization with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Allen Moyer creates a worthy canvas that is somehow elegant in its simplicity, and James Schuette’s costumes effectively let the trio differentiate their myriad characters (and adds his own humorous touches too). Kudos also to wig and makeup designer Tom Watson and Sean Curran’s choreography.
New operas don’t often go on to the kind of popularity that sees them being universally admired and being performed a great deal at other opera companies, but “27” is likely to defy the odds. St. Louisans should not miss the opportunity to see the impressive work during its birth.