ST. LOUIS: It is a brilliant idea to write an opera about Gertrude Stein. It is an even more brilliant idea to write it for the powerhouse contralto Stephanie Blythe. If ever there were a historical figure who can burst into full-throated song without apparent contradition, it’s Stein; and Blythe is a singer with Stein’s larger-than-life presence, thanks to a majestic, magnetic, powerful voice that makes you take notice. Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek have written such an opera, called “27,” for the Opera Theater of St. Louis this summer, and while I can’t say that I loved it unequivocally, I enjoyed listening to a lot of it.
“27” (named for Stein’s address on the rue de Fleurus in Paris) offers vignettes of Stein’s life with Alice B. Toklas. Its librettist and composer make an unequal pairing. Vavrek tried to get inside Stein’s style, with repeated verbal motifs in simple language and impressionistic snapshots of the womens’ history, focusing more on Stein’s mentoring of other artists than on her own work.
Gordon approaches story-telling much more literally. He clearly found much to inspire him in this libretto and subject, to judge from a score that has an engaging vitality from the opening bars, and is delightfully studded with allusions (a touch of “Lakmé,” a hint of “Vanessa”) and adroit vocal ensembles. But it doesn’t actually evoke anything significant about the period. What we get is a pleasing 90-minute show that presents Stein and Toklas and their circle — Picasso and Matisse, Hemingway and Fitzgerald — as a kind of local color, leaving the audience on the outside, looking in.
Indeed, James Robinson’s production deliberately reduced some of the supporting players to caricature. Hemingway, who actually has a significant role in telling off Stein for “her ego. Her mental laziness,” made his entrance in safari gear dragging a large rhinoceros. This was, among other things, anachronistic — Hemingway’s Africa period came some time after his Paris sojourn in the 1920s — but it got a big laugh from the audience.
Art, too, was reduced to a kind of caricature or appendage; never was there a piece that talked so much about making art with so little to say about art itself. The real-life Stein, to be sure, is a maddeningly elusive figure who tended to glorify genius and herself; and this opera subscribed to the not uncommon view that her own work was secondary to her colorful life. Yet it felt like some essential part of the picture was missing, and the opera’s pacing slowed to a crawl by the final ensemble, because it wasn’t clear exactly what Stein represented, beyond a zany and loving lesbian relationship with lots of pretty pictures. (Tellingly, Allen Moyer’s sets avoided literal representation of the paintings that, represented as singing characters, are such a key part of the opera; he offered empty frames and canvases instead.)
The casting was not only strong, but made a great case for the Opera Theater of St. Louis’s young-artist program, three members of which took on a bevy of auxiliary roles, with considerable authority. Daniel Brevik, a bass-baritone, was particularly impressive with a sonorous voice that made him sound a bit like a young Blythe, and a build and manner so perfectly evocative of Hemingway that I, at least, was waiting for his turn in that role even while he was playing a stentorian Matisse. Theo Lebow, a tenor, was a taut-voiced Picasso, vocally elegant when he wasn’t succumbing to the temptation to oversing in Blythe’s presence. And Tobias Greenhalgh — who is coming to the Wolf Trap Opera later this summer — was the irascible Leo, Gertrude’s brother and the collector of the art that was such a focus of the first part of the opera, as well as Man Ray.
In this age of movie-theater opera broadcasts, there’s more debate than ever about the question of realistic casting in opera – of how important it is for a singer to look the part. St. Louis cast the two leads of “27” with veteran singers who matched their characters in age and body type: Elizabeth Futral, slender and bird-like in a black dress, was Toklas, a light high soprano, to Blythe’s deep Stein. If her slender voice was a little brittle around the edges, it seemed in keeping with her role, just as Blythe’s patchiness on the top notes sounded perfectly in character for Stein.
“27” will probably have a long performance life. It’s tuneful, lively, and, the greatest key to success these days, written for a cast of five singers with a small orchestra and no chorus, meaning that it can be done in music conservatories and small-scale productions across the country. Its reach somewhat exceeds its grasp; still, it is a worthy occupant of a particular niche in the operatic landscape.