BWW Reviews: OTSL's '27' Opens to Ovations

BWW Reviews:  OTSL's '27' Opens to Ovations

A critic from the London Sunday Times has called Opera Theatre of St. Louis "one of the few American companies worth the trans-Atlantic fare." It is indeed, and for those opera-lovers who don't have to cross the pond you really should kick yourselves for not making the trip to St. Louis.

OTSL has just opened a new commissioned work entitled simply "27". With music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Royce Vavrek, it brings us into the world of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas--"27" being their address on the Rue Fleurus. The piece was specifically written for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, and her performance is worth a ticket clear 'round the world! She is wonderfully supported by soprano Elizabeth Futral as Alice.

For decades Stein and Toklas hosted their legendary salons--weekly gatherings of the famous and the soon-to-be-famous--artists and writers who were turning their worlds upside down. Such men as Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and other greats came to feel themselves at home at 27 Rue Fleurus.

And, of course, Gertrude Stein and her two brothers--Leo, who appears in the opera, and Michael, who does not--continued to amass one of the world's greatest collections of post-Impressionist and other modern paintings.

And, oh yes: Gertrude pursued her own literary quest for glory-attempting to do with words what the Cubists were doing with images.

Now I must admit that Gertrude Stein was never one of my favorite authors. To me, as to many others, her pretentious, impenetrable prose was just not my cup of tea. Moreover, that famous Picasso portrait of her, sitting there solid as a mountain, makes her seem dour and humorless. And as for Alice: in those old photos she seems so lean and grim and dark--and kind of lonely. Well, all of these old biases were instantly demolished when Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral took the stage. Miss Blythe brings such life, such vivacity to Gertrude. She fills her with joy. Yes, there is still that enormous commanding ego, but we see something of the great charisma that Stein must surely have had. And Miss Futral gives us an Alice who is very much more than just Stein's totally subservient wife and factotum. Bright and graceful--even lithe--she clearly loves her role in Stein's life. And Gertrude and Alice clearly love each other.

Stephanie Blythe's voice is quite astonishing. Limitlessly powerful and with utter clarity it is indeed a wonder and a joy. And Elizabeth Futral sings a very beautiful, lyrical Alice. They are supported by three splendid men who sing various other "geniuses" (and their wives). Tenor Theo Lebow, Baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik do superb work. I can't recall when three singers have ever been so busy; in an instant costumes are on and off, beards and moustaches are on and off, into the picture frames, haul on the trophy rhinoceros, haul off the liquor cart, where's that great fur coat? And somehow these three gifted singers can give the impression of an entire male chorus. Their trios are some of the most beautiful pieces in the opera--gorgeous harmonies, beautiful interplay of voices.

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon gives us a delightful contemporary and accessible score--lyrical and melodic, richly orchestrated. The overture (or "Prologue") is as bright and lively and engaging as anything by Leonard Bernstein. At times there are breaths of Debussy's chromaticism. There is a "Bells" duet by Gertrude and Alice, symbolizing their love. I'd been told that this was rather like the "Flower" duet in Lakme (which is my very favorite in all opera); I was not disappointed. It's breathtakingly beautiful.

The libretto by Royce Vavrek is lively and often witty, with moments of deep tenderness.

Stage director James Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer make the theatrical most out of very simple elements. We see a large room; the gray-blue wall-paper has, of course, a pigeon motif. There's a chair or two, a small table, and many empty picture frames. The opening moment shows Alice intensely knitting. From her needles there flows an enormously long swath of knitted gray--yards and yards and yards--like a muffler for Gargantua. And from this knitted stuff arise three knitted men who take on many roles. The entire story is knitted out by Alice's needles. It's a priceless conceit--and it works.

Gertrude--and the various other characters--enter from behind the wall-paper. At times the three men step into picture frames to become their creators.

Musically and vocally it's a flawless evening. Conductor Michael Christie gets wonders from his orchestra.

But the evening is not quite perfect. I think that it is in the book that we find a major weakness in this work. Basically nothing happens. We see nothing of the development of the relationship between Gertrude and Alice--not its beginning, not any complications or difficulties. We see only that they love each other and are happy. Oh, yes, in the libretto artists and writers come and go, there are arguments, there are even two world wars. Lots of clever things happen on stage, but they're all theatrical things. Nothing psychological happens. Nothing human happens to Gertrude and Alice. Yes, brother Leo goes off in a snit, but that break is not explored. We see no vulnerability in Gertrude; she is unflaggingly confident in her own genius.

Even when she is called to a kind of trial by her own paintings over her questionable behavior in Vichy France, that topic is not really explored. Just how did she and Alice survive--relatively comfortably--in wartime France? After all, they were Jews and homosexuals--neither one a particularly protected category under the Nazis. (We know that the two women were protected--even pampered--by a friend who was a collaborationist Vichy official.) Now I'm not one who holds that all artists must be either politically correct or totally rejected. I love Wagner, I like Ezra Pound. Kazan did some great work. All I'm suggesting is that this is a topic that could have lent some real drama to the story. As it is, the story is lacking.

Nevertheless both musically and theatrically this is quite a glorious production. I'd see it again in a minute. 27 is now playing at Opera Theatre St. Louis. Stephanie Blythe will make you swallow your gum.


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Steve Callahan A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) children. Nevertheless I've been active in theatre all my life--having directed fifty-three productions (everything from opera in Poughkeepsie to Mrozek in Woodstock to musical melodrama in Germany) and I've acted in seventy others. Now that I'm retired I don't have that eight-to-five distraction and can focus a bit more. I've regularly reviewed theatre in St. Louis for KDHX since 1991 and am tickled now to also join BWW.