27: Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2014

Gertrude Stein in St. Louis

The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis premieres ’27’ alongside three classics

The first thing that you notice about Ricky Ian Gordon’s “27,” an opera about Gertrude Stein that recently had its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, is that it moves. Royce Vavrek, the librettist, taking his cue from Stein’s own short phrases and cells of text, created a playful, quick-witted libretto that pushed Mr. Gordon beyond his trademark melodies into a brighter, friskier style. With so many contemporary composers falling into the trap of endless declamation, it is a treat to hear this lively fantasia about a curious historical figure that embraces her peculiarities but makes her sympathetic. It is no small matter that the piece was written for Stephanie Blythe, an outsize personality herself, whose grand, multifaceted mezzo brings the character to vibrant life.

The 90-minute opera, in a prologue and five acts, zeroes in on Stein’s salon at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, where she championed up-and-coming painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso and, later, American writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Man Ray. The salon scenes are fastmoving, squabbling and funny, capturing Stein’s huge ego—she was convinced she was a genius—as well as her appetite for the genius of others. We see her dark side in her questionable collaborations with the Vichy regime during World War II. And the love story of Stein and her “wife” and protector Alice B. Toklas, eloquently sung by Elizabeth Futral, inspires Mr. Gordon’s sweetest music, including the recurring theme, “The bells ring,” and Stein’s final, affecting aria, “I’ve been called many things.”

Three men—tenor Theo Lebow, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik, talented members of OTSL’s young-artists program—played all the other parts, their quick-change antics and tight ensembles contributing to the speedy, riotous quality of the piece. So did James Robinson’s sharp directing and Allen Moyer’s set, a wallpapered room with empty frames through which the characters enter and exit, and James F. Ingalls’s fine lighting. James Schuette designed the apt period costumes, including outré get-ups for the artists’ wives and mistresses. Conductor Michael Christie ably controlled the mayhem.

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– Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2014