By Rob Levy
In a season filled with operas centered on strong women, Opera Theatre of St Louis has unveiled 27, a world premiere production featuring two provocative women, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. 27 was commissioned as part of New Works, Bold Voices series (which began with last year’s Terence Blanchard excellent boxing opera, Champion), a three-year cycle of world premieres by American composers for the company. This project came to fruition through the hard work and collaboration of vocal music wunderkind Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek.
The Paris art scene centered around the home of Gertrude Stein has been a richly mined source for plays, movies and books. Now her tempestuous life of complexity, creativity and passion comes to life in a vivid new production that focuses on her life in the City of Lights between the World Wars. The intense drama is set entirely at her home at 27 Rue de Fleurus, a hub of creativity where Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, served as beacons for artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Man Ray and writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 27, Stein interacts with the visionaries of her time. Here Matisse and Picasso jockey for recognition while Stein and her brother Theo slug it out over who owns what in the collection. Whereas Stein had an eye for art, she had no understanding for the events of her time. She tragically believed that no war would break out in either 1914 or 1939, a fact that would tarnish her reputation for decades. And inevitably, as times changes, Stein and Toklas shared in the suffering of the war.
At the core of the opera is the relationship between a controlling, dominant and unnerving Stein, and the more practical and reserved Toklas. Despite dire times, they never lost their spirit; through bombings and occupation they never wavered in their efforts to embrace the creativity around them. The larger-than-life Stein was a tastemaker of her time, and her approval or disapproval could make or break an artist. Her taste in art was wide-ranging, and her passion for developing literary talent was just as vital; she was more responsible than anyone in bringing Modernism into the public eye.
This world premiere event showcases an amazing ensemble cast. Stephanie Blythe, a powerhouse of opera debuting in her inaugural production with OTSL, gives a mesmerizing performance. She is both an incredible vocalist and mentor to her compatriots. Her co-star, soprano Elizabeth Futral, stars as Alice B. Toklas. Futral’s work is not to be missed. Like Blythe, she rarely leaves the stage, carrying the emotional weight of the libretto. As a duo, Futral and Blythe are pure electricity.
The supporting cast fills multiple roles, which allows a small ensemble to focus the intense drama on stage. Theo Lebow gives Picasso haughtiness and a brooding tone that works well with Blythe and Futral. Tobias Greenleigh’s Matisse is snarky and pouty, a perfect fit for a production focused on the dealings of the art world.
The design team has outdone themselves. The opera utilizes one set with great effect, allowing the actors room to roam and breathe. Yet when the stage needs to close in for a more claustrophobic feel, it is pliable enough to do so. Allen Moyer’s set elegantly captures the mood of the times while also serving as a soft-toned backdrop for passionately emotional opera.
The use of picture frames to create living portraitures is a remarkably effective technique for concentrating the focus of the audience.
Oftentimes the words “world premiere” lead straight to material that turns out to be weird, unfinished or even frighteningly experimental. With 27, Opera Theatre of St. Louis has created a multi-textured production that is as emotionally deep as it is visually exquisite.
In a season laden with formidable ensembles and dominant singing, 27 sets the bar. It has everything you want in a powerful opera and its execution is flawless. This inaugural production has resonated with audiences while putting the opera world on notice that OTSL is capable of creating innovative and dynamic new work.