A critic from the London Sunday Times has called Opera Theatre of St. Louis "one of the few American companies worth the trans-Atlantic fare." It is indeed, and for those opera-lovers who don't have to cross the pond you really should kick yourselves for not making the trip to St. Louis.
OTSL has just opened a new commissioned work entitled simply "27". With music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Royce Vavrek, it brings us into the world of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas-"27" being their address on the Rue Fleurus. The piece was specifically written for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, and her performance is worth a ticket clear 'round the world! She is wonderfully supported by soprano Elizabeth Futral as Alice.
For decades Stein and Toklas hosted their legendary salons-weekly gatherings of the famous and the soon-to-be-famous-artists and writers who were turning their worlds upside down. Such men as Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and other greats came to feel themselves at home at 27 Rue Fleurus.
And, of course, Gertrude Stein and her two brothers-Leo, who appears in the opera, and Michael, who does not-continued to amass one of the world's greatest collections of post-Impressionist and other modern paintings.
And, oh yes: Gertrude pursued her own literary quest for glory-attempting to do with words what the Cubists were doing with images.
Now I must admit that Gertrude Stein was never one of my favorite authors. To me, as to many others, her pretentious, impenetrable prose was just not my cup of tea. Moreover, that famous Picasso portrait of her, sitting there solid as a mountain, makes her seem dour and humorless. And as for Alice: in those old photos she seems so lean and grim and dark-and kind of lonely. Well, all of these old biases were instantly demolished when Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral took the stage. Miss Blythe brings such life, such vivacity to Gertrude. She fills her with joy. Yes, there is still that enormous commanding ego, but we see something of the great charisma that Stein must surely have had. And Miss Futral gives us an Alice who is very much more than just Stein's totally subservient wife and factotum. Bright and graceful-even lithe-she clearly loves her role in Stein's life. And Gertrude and Alice clearly love each other.
Stephanie Blythe's voice is quite astonishing. Limitlessly powerful and with utter clarity it is indeed a wonder and a joy. And Elizabeth Futral sings a very beautiful, lyrical Alice. They are supported by three splendid men who sing various other "geniuses" (and their wives). Tenor Theo Lebow, Baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik do superb work. I can't recall when three singers have ever been so busy; in an instant costumes are on and off, beards and moustaches are on and off, into the picture frames, haul on the trophy rhinoceros, haul off the liquor cart, where's that great fur coat? And somehow these three gifted singers can give the impression of an entire male chorus. Their trios are some of the most beautiful pieces in the opera-gorgeous harmonies, beautiful interplay of voices.