With same-sex marriage all over the news lately, Opera Theatre of St. Louis has a timely new work in 27.
Commissioned by the company from composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek, it’s an opera about one of history’s most famous lesbian couples, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
In a mere 90 minutes, the opera also introduces Stein’s hostile brother Leo, the artists Picasso and Matisse, the photographer Man Ray and the writers Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Now in its 39th season, St. Louis’ May-June opera festival has a proud history of world and American premieres, lesser-known works by recognized composers and provocative productions of standard repertory. Performances, all in English, are in the 924-seat Browning Theatre of Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts. Picnic dinners can be enjoyed beforehand on beautifully landscaped grounds, and performers mingle with audiences afterward at the festival tent.
Stein and Toklas were a couple for nearly 40 years, until Stein’s death in 1946. Stein, of course, was the quirky writer, art collector, salonnière and pontificator on all matters artistic. Toklas, whom both women called the “wife,” was Stein’s secretary, cook and general enabler as well as lover.
For those four decades, practically everyone who was anyone artistic or literary in Paris passed through their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus — thus the title of the opera and a signature refrain.
Although the opera incorporates scenes during bombings in both world wars, Vavrek and Gordon have a light touch. With more than a hint of musical theater, the opera isn’t afraid to be silly or sentimental or even a bit risqué; the libretto sometimes echoes the jumbled verbiage of Stein’s writings. If the artists and writers are only sketchily portrayed, Stein and Toklas emerge as fairly complex figures — and, warts and all, appealing ones.
Gordon’s score certainly has the common touch. An experienced composer of art songs in familiar idioms, he has audibly tailored vocal parts for Stein and Toklas to the two singers portraying them, adding some deft duets and ensembles.
The two even look their parts. Stephanie Blythe is the burly Stein, her powerful mezzo dipping periodically into a wonderfully mannish chest voice.
With a soprano that gleams on high but thins out below, Elizabeth Futral is the slender, fidgety Toklas.
The male characters are portrayed with remarkable versatility — and nimble costume and wig changes — by three young apprentices: tenor Theo Lebow, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik.
Gordon’s orchestral writing — tuneful, Frenchified neoclassicism — could be right out of the so-called Boulangerie, the coterie of composers who studied with the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, a slightly younger contemporary of Stein’s.
Much of the music reminds me of the English composer Lennox Berkeley, but some passages, notably surrounding Stein’s death, echo fellow Boulanger protégé Aaron Copland.
27 is an unabashedly populist treatment of a yeasty artistic period, in musical idioms that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in 1920s Paris. That’s fine, although a couple of patches, notably Stein’s tender apotheosis at the end, could use tightening.
The opera gets loving treatment in its premiere run, with smart staging by Opera Theatre of St. Louis artistic director James Robinson; simple sets, with entrance-and-exit slits in the wallpaper, by Allen Moyer; and apt costumes by James Schuette.
Conductor Michael Christie ably coordinated Tuesday night’s performance, with fine support from members of the St. Louis Symphony.