|Cast and Production Team of Ricky Ian Gordon's 27 at New York City Center|
(photo by Erin Baiano)
Regular readers will be shocked to learn that we have seen a new opera and enjoyed it. We have about given up on hearing a new opera that has melodic arias. That just isn’t going to come out of the 21st c., especially not in the English language. What we have been seeing are “plays with music”. But the music has been mostly unmusical. Last night we saw and heard an opera in which many positive factors came together to produce an absorbing and enlightening experience. 27 was commissioned by The Opera Theater of Saint Louis in 2014. This New York premiere included a new expanded choral section written just for Master Voices.
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon chose a subject dear to his heart, a subject that inspired him, the life of Gertrude Stein, the renowned writer, poet and art collector, a major influence in the worlds of art and literature. He avoided the trap of trying to set her texts to music as Virgil Thompson did. Instead he chose librettist Royce Vavrek who constructed a conversational libretto of short uncomplicated phrases that did what the English language does best. There was sufficient repetition of phrases to bind the work together in a manner that was reflective of, but not imitative of Gertrude Stein’s writing style.
Several successive periods of Ms. Stein’s life were illustrated—a creative life that spanned two World Wars. The theme running through all these epochs was her relationship with the incredibly devoted Alice B. Toklas who performed innumerable functions including emotional and practical support. Their love story takes center stage.
The earliest period illuminated her involvement with young painters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; then we visited her salon during the privations of World War I when food and coal were hard to come by. Next we witnessed the post-WWI period of "the lost generation" when her salon was visited predominantly by young writers—“Scotty” Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Finally we visited her during WWII when her political affiliations were suspect.
Mr. Gordon’s music was powerful when it needed to be and gentle when called for. The romantic duets for Ms. Stein and Ms. Toklas were beautifully written as were the ensembles. The music for wartime utilized percussion to evoke the bombing of the Luxembourg Gardens and the anxiety of those Parisians enduring it.
In addition to the compelling story and the exciting music, the casting of the singers and their performances were extraordinary. As Ms. Stein, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe’s larger than life performance perfectly suited the larger than life character of Ms. Stein. The deep and muscular timbre of her voice and her acting had us believing that she was the ghost of Ms. Stein right there on the stage of New York City Center.
Soprano Heidi Stober perfectly portrayed helpmate and wife Alice B. Toklas. The opera opens with her alone, after Ms. Stein’s death, knitting a bulky garment, knitting up the scenes of their life together. The opera ends at the same place—a superb framing device letting us experience the memories along with her. Ms. Stober’s bright soprano was perfect for the part and blended beautifully with Ms. Blythe’s.
The other characters in the opera were portrayed by three fine artists for whom we have nothing but praise. Tenor Theo Lebow was effective as the timid and bibulous Scott Fitzgerald-- but he was absolutely remarkable as the young Picasso. Thanks to the imaginative costuming of James Schuette, he entered dressed as a matador wearing the head of a bull.
Baritone Tobias Greenhalgh gave an excellent portrayal of the photographer Man Ray but was most impressive as Ms. Stein’s brother Leo who strutted around in an enormous raccoon coat, denigrating his sister’s salon and choice of paintings.
Bass-baritone Daniel Brevik impressed as Matisse and later as Hemingway, dragging an elephant behind him. Oh yes, did we mention that the work was salted with a great deal of humor?
The funniest scene of the opera involved the “wives of geniuses” who bored Ms. Toklas with their talk of perfume, hats, and furs. Just imagine if you can, these three highly masculine singers in drag, singing an unforgettably clever trio.
A trio of soldiers, portrayed by the aforementioned Mr. Lebow, Mr. Greenhalgh, and Mr. Brevik appeared in various scenes together. Their voices harmonized so incredibly well. Their working so well as an ensemble is understandable, given that they portrayed the same roles at the St. Louis premiere.
The set design by Allen Moyer had a great big “27” to indicate the address on Rue de Fleurus where all the famous and soon-to-be-famous gathered. The stage was littered with paintings and some chairs.
Ted Sperling, Artistic Director, conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Master Voices. It is well worth mentioning that the diction of this enormous chorus was so crisp that not a single word was lost. Although there were projected titles, they were superfluous. Everyone’s diction was beyond reproach.
The production was well directed by James Robinson.
Every element worked together to produce a memorable evening about which we had a surprising thought—“I’d see this one again”. We have yet to feel such enthusiasm for a contemporary work. Our eyes and ears have been opened.
(c) meche kroop