MICHIGAN OPERA THEATRE presented their newest studio artists in Ricky Ian Gordon’s 2014 chamber opera 27. With characteristically tuneful, satisfying music from song veteran Gordon, the opera traces the life of Gertrude Stein (Briana Elyse Hunter), writer and nurturer of “genius,” and her partner Alice B. Toklas (Monica Dewey) at their home, 27 rue de Fleurus, where their guests included painters, writers, and displaced soldiers.
Hunter is a mezzo-soprano of astounding vocal and dramatic range. Her liquid voice can be pants-role commanding, as in her intense “Lost boys,” or persuasive and plush, as in her Act IV defense aria “Jury of my Canvas.” Equally at ease as Jo in last year’s Little Women and in the practical shoes of Gordon’s Stein, Hunter should be in high demand when her contract with MOT is up this spring. As Stein’s contented beloved Alice B. Toklas, soprano Monica Dewey demonstrated her mastery of musical styles ranging from contemporary opera to musical theater and cabaret. Dewey’s endearing timbre burst with warmth even as she kept it in control, so that Gordon’s smooth melodies hung like bias cut satin on her expressive vocal frame. An enduring bright spot as the opera’s tone darkened, Dewey gave a bravely simple performance of Alice’s goodbye aria “Before we say hello” that was as close to perfect as opera gets.
A trio of gentlemen played all of Stein’s and Toklas’ visitors, clad in frankly atrocious gray knit short pants held up with unforgiving suspenders. Transcending their shockingly unbecoming costumes were the rest of MOT’s studio artists. Michael Day, a tender Pablo Picasso at the beginning and later height of his career, navigated his sweet, meaty tenor unerringly through some technical perils, and his vulnerably bare “Tell me I’m good” was among the most memorable passages of the night. Harry Greenleaf swung between Stein’s bullying brother Leo in the first act and philosophical photographer Man Ray in the third, when his fullbodied baritone could unfurl in some of Gordon’s loveliest lines. Bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen’s resonant, leading-man swagger made Ernest Hemingway’s “Bullshit” arietta, in which he is the sole guest to reject Stein’s genius-making process, an evening highlight.
Roberto Kalb conducted his own reduced orchestration of a score that gives the instrumentalists nearly all of the work’s musical challenges. Set designer Allen Moyer surrounded the performers, often literally, with enormous empty frames, bringing the art collection that covered every wall of the Stein home to mind and to life. The opera’s production design leaned at times to the absurd, as with the enormous plastic rhinoceros Hemingway dragged on stage and the thematic extension of Alice’s knitting to their dog Basket, a stuffed knit pup on a rolling platform. Disappointingly, Stein and Toklas rarely touched or even looked at each other aside from their breezily beautiful Act I duet. This striking lack of intimacy at the heart of the opera was an unfortunate blind spot from director Jeffrey Buchman.
Michigan Opera Theater’s strong production of 27 ultimately rested on well-deserved confidence in their studio artists. For three years now, MOT has entrusted a fifth of their season to this program with leading roles in new American opera, a practice that serves not only the performers but the audiences of greater Detroit as well