Gertrude Stein certainly counts among the more intriguing Americans of her time, not just because of her brilliant gifts as a writer but for her ability to spot revelatory new artists and authors long before they were recognized by the rest of the world. An opera about her life, and particularly about her famous “salons” in Paris during the first decades of the 20th century, seems like such a natural idea that it’s surprising it took this long to happen. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s new 27, which opened June 14 at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center, gives a touchingly poetic glimpse of the parade of artists and writers that punctuated the everyday life that Stein led with her life-partner and assistant, Alice B. Toklas, in their Parisian home at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Directed by James Robinson and featuring stellar performances by Stephanie Blythe as Stein and Elizabeth Futral as Toklas, the opera consists of 90 minutes – a prologue and five brief acts in one continuous flow – of the natural, tender lyricism for which Gordon has become known through song cycles and operas such as Orpheus & Euridice and The Grapes of Wrath. Conductor Michael Christie and the St. Louis Symphony perform the prickly score with verve and energy. The libretto by Royce Vavrek is especially strong, avoiding the obvious and taking a prism-like approach to the ample ponderings on the nature of art and creativity and the musings on Stein’s dubious ties to Vichy France.
Blythe and Futral are extraordinarily convincing, the former bringing a Fricka-like gravity (and a voice almost too large for the 900-seat theater) to the role of Stein and Futral lending vivacity and focused, thrilling vocalism to that of her devoted companion. Futral’s Toklas knits Norn-like throughout as she expresses her fierce love for this larger-than-life would-be genius. James Schuette’s costumes and Tom Watson’s hair and makeup designs have made them look so strikingly similar to the famous photographs of the couple that at times one has an uncanny sense almost of reality TV. Using only five singers, the piece is neatly structured with the central love-pair supported by three male singers from the OTSL’s Gerdine Young Artist Program, who perform roles as artists (Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris), writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald), family members (Gertrude’s brother Leo, drag roles as wives and mistresses), and others.
The spare set design by Allen Moyer, which opens with a giant “27″ drop representing the address-tile outside the couple’s flat, shows considerable ingenuity: Throughout the piece the three males pose inside random picture-frames scattered upstage, personifying some of the (now) enormously valuable paintings that lined the walls of Stein’s apartment, who are thus permitted to speak for themselves. (“Protect us!” they cry, as war approaches.) Of special interest is the portrait Picasso did of Stein, for which she reportedly submitted to 100 sittings, and much of the opera’s early emotional tension grows from the painter’s inability to get her face “just right.” (In the end, he finished the face only after her death.) What’s missing, thankfully, is a cavalcade of replicas of the actual paintings produced during this period. But there are plenty of over-the-top costumes and props that help us know who is who: Picasso wears his famous black-and-white-striped jersey, and Fitzgerald totes a wagon full of liquor.
The men are excellent, with Theo Lebow’s bright tenor lending authenticity to Picasso and Fitzgerald, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh giving pomposity to Leo Stein and Man Ray, and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik bringing officiousness to Matisse and a faux-rugged Hemingway. Only when they perform a barbershop quartet in drag for a bit of Broadway pizzazz (with Futral joining in: “Wives of geniuses … knit one, purl one”) did one’s eyes roll a bit. (On the whole, though, Seán Curran’s choreography is wittily gauged.) James F. Ingalls’ lighting design is deft throughout, and Greg Emetaz’s effective video designs include projections of World War I “doughboys,” Hitler marching into Paris, and the like.
Gordon’s musical style is highlighted by melodism that strives toward the best of American opera. It is marvelously grateful to the voice: It’s no coincidence that major singers clamor to perform his music. His accessible harmonic language is sufficiently complex and sophisticated so as to set it several notches above musical theater, but there is often a sameness in the music. The melodies are sweet, at times more pleasant than memorable, though with a strong sense of structure, of beginning and ending. (Stein’s introductory “Peruse, peruse” scena in Act I is especially effective.)
If there is one major drawback to 27, it is that it lacks a strong sense of dramatic tension or development. Artists come and go. Wars go on outside. Wives sing and dance. Stein lived large, and a more visceral take might have been to focus on her life as a proud, eternal outsider, albeit a wealthy one – a Jew and a lesbian who stood strong for her beliefs in art, in the strength of women, and in her love for Alice. Some might argue that her begging for absolution in Act IV – for her controversial ties to top members of the Vichy government – is elided over a bit too neatly. (“Jury of my canvas, absolve me,” Stein sings to a “painting.” “Remember … my compassion. Remember that I opened my home, nurtured genius of painters, writers, solders, lost young men who marched away.”) Yet in the final analysis Gordon and Vavrek were wise, perhaps, in not making that controversy into the wholeness of Stein’s life. They have instead chosen to recount what is, at its core, a love story, and as such it is solid in its telling.