“27” tells a great American story, about Gertrude Stein, as well as American opera in the 21st century
If you want to understand where opera is going in America you have to travel right to its middle; to Missouri of all places, where Opera Theatre of St. Louis has premiered 24 works in its 39-year existence. No U.S. company has shown more leadership in the development of the art form.
This year’s fresh face in the repertoire is called “27″ and like its title, the work is short; just 91 minutes first note to last. Other defining details: Five singers only, no chorus, in English, and entirely pleasurable.
You might not call it the all-American opera because it takes place in Paris, but then again you might, because it is an efficient and highly productive work written by a composer whose melodies could just as easily work on Broadway. In that way Americans like their culture, it is sexed up with celebrity. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald sing in it, so do Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
More centrally, so do Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas who were shacked up, literarily and otherwise, in an apartment at #27 rue de Fleurus where all of the action in this opera takes place, from about World War I through about World War II.
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek pack a lot of questions into their piece, which is as terse as a made-for-TV movie, notable in a genre where a nice bit of Handel can tough it out for four hours.
What is genius and who gets to judge? Who gets to be famous and who doesn’t? Who controls history?
They answer the first two questions the same: Gertrude Stein. She is willful and stuck on herself, and yet powerfully charming as voiced by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, for whom the part was written specifically. Her role as both tastemaker and kingmaker for a generation, even as an expatriate, was so strong that all of the artists of her day wanted her blessing. Picasso gets it in “27″ when he paints her portrait. The avant grade photographer Man Ray isn’t so lucky when he unveils his own painting of Stein.
“I’ve met many geniuses in my time,” she sings to him. “You, my dear are photographer.”
The story of “27” is basically that: The parade of would be wunderkinder coming and going from the house and it has a lot of humor in it. At one point, the opera has Hemingway and Fitzgerald actually wrestling for the title of genius at Stein’ s command.
As for the third question, it belongs to Toklas. She outlived Stein and wrote an influential autobiography that serves as the primary source for their life together. Portrayed by soprano Elizabeth Futral, she is alternately sweet and cloying. She is wife, secretary, servant, protector, defender and definer. It is Toklas who gets to declare Stein, author of a few notable tomes and librettos, the biggest genius of all. “27″ repeats the world genius 41 times.
There is a tender romance between the women, but the story isn’t so sweet. Stein was a decorated hero of the first war, assisting wounded soldiers, but she might have survived the German occupation of France during the second by collaborating with the Vichy government. Another phrase “How does Gertrude Stein stay safe, safe, stay safe?” is repeated six times during that part of the story and her character is successfully smeared.
Gordon takes us through these highs and lows via a series of easy-to-like musical lines. The opera is tuneful, challenging in its quick starts and stops and changes, but not taxing. The arias move so fast, you might miss them.
The power comes from the pace, the reverse and forward of the note structure. Sometimes it unfolds like poetry, as when Stein gives a tour of her famous art collection: “The Cezannes are clustered over there/The lesser-knowns around the top/The Picassos are scattered every-which-where/Peruse! Peruse!”
This is fitting since Stein was known to write in a staccato stream of consciousness and that makes it a good vehicle for Blythe, who can handle the turns and whose natural magnetism goes a long way toward helping us understand the power Stein had over her world. Futral, one of the better singing actresses working today, makes the relationship believable.
Thanks to the warm flow between music and words, the couple beams with the chemistry of two souls who are remarkably different but see the value in each other until death do them part. This connection is best expressed in its matter-of-factness and the kind of sweet duets that made the world fall in love with Rogers and Hammerstein.
Their sort of attachment is what ultimately what makes this opera so American, as do the frequent interjections of one-liners and broad physical comedy.
That said, “27″ aims higher than most Broadway fare because it isn’t afraid to be artful or dig into the way art defines our lives. Stein’s art collection serves as a stand-in for her own inner thoughts. The paintings actually come alive and sing to her, framing the discussion around her humanity.
The acting, the journey, the brevity, it all says says good things about American opera, serious things, and director James Robinson balances them with some precision. He lets the bigness of “27″ shine through; it’s opera and it ought to be a little grand, even in OTSL’s 987-seat Loretto-Hilton Theatre.
But he keeps it intimate by maintaining the work as an a ensemble piece. There are just five performers on stage with the three other singers taking on multiple roles and it feels like a team effort. This prevents it from saying bad things about American culture in general — a star vehicle, how Hollywood. Blythe sings with her customary cashmere earthiness, but she never gets close to stealing the show.
In some ways, this little opera in this little venue feels important. It is every century’s job to define the century before it, and “27″ isn’t afraid to do that with certainty and depth. It out Toklases Alice B. Toklas by putting forth its own rough version of history without apologies.
As importantly, Gordon continues the trend of synthesizing two forms that battled it out in the last century, classical and popular, and makes a stand that they can coexist. Rewriting European history with a charismatic, new world touch — that’s once and forever American.