St. Louis — Ricky Ian Gordon has to be at the top of any list of the most creative composers of our generation. Although his music is always in his voice, his recognizable musical style varies widely from serious to lighthearted, from profoundly pondering to gloriously giddy, from his modernist take on tonality to his equally original take on cabaret. It all goes on the musical palette from which Gordon paints his highly colored scores. Characters are vividly portrayed by musical signatures as personal and unique as fingerprints. The text is so wonderfully set that the cast could sing on “la la la” and we would know, from Gordon's expressive music, what was being said and who was saying it.
His new opera, 27, having a world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, is a case in point. It is about the Paris-based lives of the American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein and her wife, Alice B. Toklas, of brownie fame—and named for their famous Paris apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Stein's fame came as art collector, encourager of artists (Picasso, Matisse, etc.) and a well-known avant-garde writer in her own right. Her writing style is hallmarked by the repetitious repeating she repeats repeatedly. Some of her writing is so dense as to be incomprehensible while other works are delightful and breezy.
The opera premiered on Saturday evening in an overly broad but sparkling production, directed by James Robinson. The 90 minute-plus opera is in five short acts, performed without intermission, much like her play What Happened: A Play in Five Acts. While it seemed to drag in a few spots, it mostly skipped along in a high-energy Music Hall manner.
The role of Stein was written for, and magnificently brought to life by, Stephanie Blythe. There is no bigger name in opera today. She is the Metropolitan Opera's superstar mezzo who sings everything from Wagner to Handel with new operas and some blood n' guts Verdi, such as Amnesia in Aida, thrown in. Yet, there is no trace of the diva to be found, and a good thing too, because 27 is an ensemble opera. Blythe maintains her leading lady status, however, in that she hardly ever leaves the stage.
This is because Gordon weaves the story of the era around Stein's famous salons. He paints a musical picture of the vast tapestry of the historical into a hysterically honest realization of a recognized reality, a real reality, synthesized from scattered sources such as Stein's ghostwritten autobiography of Toklas. There are other thoughts incorporated from other contemporaneous commentaries by the century's critical commentators who continue to comment with constant clamorous clamant that carries on until it exhausts commendation itself.
With an eye to the realities of opera companies today, 27 uses a small cast and is cleverly orchestrated for small orchestral forces. The score is endlessly creative and packed full of delightful little surprises for you to discover, like coins in the Christmas cake. For example, there is a full-out Technicolor Todd-AO-style build up, with a purposely over-the-top final flourish that leads to the unveiling of Picasso's unflattering portrait of Gertrude. Struck speechless, silence ensues. Everyone hated it, saturated as it is in shades of brown with Stein looking like a carelessly discarded pile of laundry. Stein, ever Picasso's cheerleader, announces that she loves it—even if she looks like a German hausfrau in it. In actuality, this scene was invented, as it went unfinished for a period of time. The face in the portrait, in a quite different style than the rest of it, was painted some post-cubist, clip of time later. Still, it is a very funny moment that opera, Gordonesque opera to be specific, is perfectly suited to conjure.
Librettist Royce Vavrek was given a nearly impossible task: to cover all of the Paris years during which the Stein/Toklas salon was attended by, as the title of her biography (by Janet Hobhouse) states “Everybody Who Was Anybody.” Vavrek prepared a delightful confection of a libretto by picking events out of her life much the way you would gather a small representative bouquet from a large garden. He successfully compresses difficult decades into mere moments and complex interpersonal relationships into a few sallies of speedy repartee. These brief scenes and arias, reminiscent of the “number” operas and operettas, give us the flavor of the changing nature of the art and literarily world as the action moves through the years. Cubism came and then cowered in the corner, Dada had a brief dalliance with the dandies and Stein continued to compound in what she called the “continuous present,” with its trademark continuing continuance of a continuum constantly creating the creative that causes consistently created constants.
Appropriately, the OTSL has assembled a cast that matches and complements Blythe's considerable vocal ands dramatic abilities. Blythe looks like a slightly more feminine version of the mannish Stein but she captures her piquant personality and ample physicality perfectly. From her first entrance, the galactic size of her voice left speechless those who had not heard her live before. Yet her singing is supple and expressive, capable of floating mezza voce, which is rare in a Wagnerian singer.
Elizabeth Futral, a distinguished soprano who also has Met credits, looks exactly like the existing photos of Toklas. Although no one on stage (or probably anywhere) can match the size and depth of Blythe's brass section of a voice, Futral comes close, especially in the top range. She has a beautiful sound that has more lyric overtones than the usual coloratura soprano. Their duets are beautifully sung and blended, providing the most touching moments in the opera. Their big smooch, in this heady era of rapidly expanding marriage equality, brought both joyous tears and appreciative applause from the audience. Futral captures Toklas' “take charge” attitude towards Gertrude, which is critical to the plot. Toklas irritated Stein's brother and fellow art collector by making him irrelevant. Toklas rarely asserted the power of her rank in the household, but we’re aware it’s there in Futral's performance.
Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh and Daniel Brevik, a threesome of versatile male singers, play all of the other roles, even the women who were the wives of the artists and were banished from serious talk of modern art theory, turned over to Alice to exchange recipes. All three singers are part of the Gerdine Young Artist studio and, if they are representative of the high level of talent in the program, the future Blythes and Futrals are concentrated in Saint Louis this summer.
Their task is huge. Lebow is F. Scott Fitzgerald one minute and Picasso another. Brevik is Hemingway, suffering from a clear case testosterone poisoning. He even gets in a wrestling match with Lebow in his “Scotty” incarnation. Greenhalgh portrays Gertrude's brother as well as the photographer Man Ray. All three play other minor roles, such as the aforementioned wives, the easily dazzled American Doughboys, and even the authorities that question Stein about some writing she did for the Vichy government.
An aside: let's get real here. The two women, one of whom was Jewish and both were obviously homosexual, had to do something to keep out of the concentration camps. Those groups wearing the Star of David and those wearing the pink triangles ended up in the same gas chamber for sure. Combine both undesirable traits in a pair of difficult women and it is a miracle that they made it through the war at all. Being American, and sort-of famous, helped; but some “harmless” translation chores, to help out their influential protector, allowed them to survive. They also did a lot of charity work, caring for the demoralized and the devastated while keeping the wolf, and the Gestapo, away from the door. They sold paintings to enable them to protect the priceless collection, which survived the brutal war unscathed.
Back to the review: Allen Moyer’s is the biggest failure of this production. Two abstract walls, but not abstract enough to parody one of the painters, are covered with a wallpaper full of posies.
They do not hint
they do not imply
they do not conjure
they do not evoke
they do not not.
What they also do not do is convey the mammoth art museum that was the living room of the famous apartment. What we see is more like the living room of a double-wide. The projected names of the artists whose work adorned those sacred walls and the gilded empty frames, so carelessly strewn about, only remind of what’s missing. This is not to say that one of the most famous living rooms of the 20th century should be reproduced à la Zeffirelli. No.
It is okay to evince
okay to express
okay to explore
evince express explore
but then tell show present remind
Like other unique and memorable locations, such as the Oval Office, some places deserve more respect in the way they are depicted.
James Ingalls' lighting and Greg Emetaz's projections help some, but cannot salvage the paucity of the set. James Schuette's costumes and Tom Watson's wigs and makeup do a fine job of recreating people whose look we all know. Sean Curran is listed as choreographer, but I must have missed the ballet sequence. (Perhaps it will only be done in the Paris production.) Conductor Michael Christie keeps everything bubbling along and the members of the St. Louis Symphony in the pit do themselves proud.
Director James Robinson vacillates between the stunning and the silly. Blythe moves like the Chrysler Tower and Robinson gives her limitation a limitless life with minimal movement, giving the impression of a lively lesbian who parses out her energy expenditures like a miser.
A less successful decision is the portrayal of Hemingway, who arrives in full hunting regalia and dragging a taxidermist's rhino. At the time of his arrival in Paris, the 22-year-old Hemingway was far from the masculine parody he would become. At that time, he was a slender dreamer and decades away from that rhino's ridiculous appearance and whatever actions he took to deliver the animal's dramatic and doleful demise.
Fitzgerald is also poorly portrayed—tipsy and toddling, pulling a child's trolley topped with a brazen bounty of booze bottles.
Stein's death, in her favorite chair and in Toklas' loving arms, is as moving a moment as you will find anywhere. Opera is a well-known repository of three-hanky endings and 27 joins their exalted rank. But the last scene, called Alice Alone, should have been exactly that—Alice alone. Gertrude ex machina blunts the drama of the moment. At life's end, most tearful operas feature the star-crossed lovers reliving treasured moments until the last mutually shared moment expires. Like other such scenes, Gordon repeats the music from happier times when Alice and Gertrude shared a dance and kiss. That music made such a strong impression that we would have easily filled in Gertrude's part from memory. Then only Alice, alone, could/should see the manifestation of Gertrude's eternal energy. Stein returns to banish what she can and burnish the legacy she left to Alice to preserve. But we didn't need to see her. Alice does, and that is enough.
Let's let Stein let Stein let Stein yes let Stein have give speak deliver the last concluding final closing statement (from Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography):
“The thing is like this, it is all the question of identity. It is all a question of the outside being outside and the inside being inside. As long as the outside does not put a value on you it remains outside but when it does put a value on you then it gets inside or rather if the outside puts a value on you then all your inside gets to be outside. I used to tell all the men who were being successful young how bad this was for them and then I who was no longer young was having it happen.”
A note from the composer offers an explanation for the way the production unfolded. It is "Alice Alone" from the start, not just in the last act that is so titled. The whole thing takes place after Stein's death and we are watching Alice's flashback to the entire experience of their lives together. The walls are empty because the paintings are gone. We see Alice knitting at the beginning and before Act Five.
The concept here, like Wagner's Norns, is that she is knitting their life back together so we can see it. Also, I am told that the wallpaper is a copy of what was actually on the walls of 27, although every photo we see of the walls, they are so covered with paintings that the wallpaper is hard to see. Perhaps this also explains Hemingway's rhino and F. Scott Fitzgerald's booze trolley. Dreams and flashbacks can merge events combining different times and places.
Although it is not stated clearly, you can find this concept by hunting through the program notes, although it was easier to find once I knew about it. It is only clear that Alice is alone in the fifth act, because Gertrude appears after we know she is dead.
Would this have made a difference? I am certain that it would have with regard to the set, wallpaper and missing paintings. The rhino and drink trolley might have still garnered a comment, but it is impossible to tell what my reaction would have been with this key piece of information. I find myself thinking back on it more favorably and wish I could see it again.
This is the problem with "concept" productions. Unless it is very clearly stated, with underlined capital letters, even an experienced operagoer who reads the program notes can miss it.
» Read our interview with Ricky Ian Gordon before another 2014 premiere, A Coffin in Egypt at Houston Grand Opera
» And here's our review of A Coffin in Egypt