A review of the world premiere recording of Ricky Ian Gordon’s magnificent new opera
Jewish and a lesbian, Stein was admired, exalted, and then reviled for being a relentless Vichy "propagandist" and for befriending gay, fascist, anti-Semite Bernard Faÿ. There’s no way around it, the woman was a walking paradox. Both naive and arrogant, Stein was a character larger than life, and as such, seems like an ideal subject for an opera. Having seen Met Opera superstar mezzo Stephanie Blythe many times on the stage, the decision to cast her as Stein seems like the logical choice. Devouring every moment of 27 with that magnificent voice and commanding presence, Blythe’s nuanced performance utilizes the full extent of her versatile instrument that shines through on the recording. When she sings: "The flowers. Before the flowers a friendship faded friendship faded" during her final aria "I’ve Been Called Many Things," one would have to be stone-hearted to be unmoved.
The grounded vulnerability of soprano Elizabeth Futral’s performance as Alice is a remarkable thing, the perfect foil for Blythe’s ferocious presence. Beautifully sung from the knitting prologue onward, her rich voice blossoms at the top and sounds spectacular juxtaposed with Blythe’s brassy timbre in the duets. Tenor Theo Lebow, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik — three terrific singers from the OTSL’s Gerdine Young Artist Program — perform the remaining roles as artists (Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray), writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald), Gertrude’s brother Leo, and in an amusing bit, the trio play wives and mistresses in drag.
Stein’s idiosyncratic writing style was about the playfulness of language, and in modern American opera it is occasionally difficult to understand vocalists singing in their own native language, so the crisp English diction delivered here by the entire cast highlights the brilliance of Vavrek’s witty libretto. Following the immense grandeur of Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath, the more spare 27 seems almost chamber opera-esque in scope. Yet there is nothing diminutive about the attention to detail and rich characterization found here. Stein wrote, "A rose is a rose is a rose," and this rose is in full bloom.