Story: American writer Gertrude Stein left her homeland with her brother Leo for London in 1902 and moved to Paris the following year. Eventually she and Leo settled at 27 rue de Fleurus, near the Luxembourg Gardens. When another American ex-patriate, Alice B. Toklas, met Gertrude in 1907 the two immediately were drawn to each other and began a nearly 40-year relationship that ended when Gertrude Stein died in 1946.
Gertrude and Leo appreciated art, and Gertrude fancied herself a detector of artistic ‘genius’ as well. The ‘Stein salon’ at 27 rue de Fleurus became the place to see and be seen by artists and writers for decades. Leo departed in 1914, virtually never speaking to his sister again, but Gertrude and Alice continued the weekly gatherings at the Stein salon, filled at one time or another with priceless works by Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse and many others.
The avant garde visited to share stories, cigarettes and philosophy with Gertrude. Alice tended to the other ‘wives’ in another room while the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and photographer Man Ray held court with Gertrude, who lived life on her own terms. Alice, who had cooked, cleaned and copied Stein’s work by typewriter and, in general, held the home together for four decades, continued to honor Gertrude until her own death in 1967.
Highlights: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has mounted formidable world premieres throughout its illustrious history, including recently acclaimed works such as Champion in 2013, The Death of Klinghoffer in 2011 and Nixon in China in 2004. This latest venture, termed an “opera in five acts,” is a delightful, interpretive piece of history with a sprightly musical score by Ricky Ian Gordon and a clever libretto by Royce Vavrek. With lush, soaring voices and a fluid storyline, it’s already a nicely polished little operatic gem.
Other Info: While it’s listed as one act in a little less than 90 minutes, in truth the opening-night performance stretched closer to one hour and 45 minutes. That’s not a complaint, just an observation, because 27 is consistently engaging, thanks to the meshing of Gordon’s and Vavrek’s individual talents.
A tidy cast of five players is all that is needed to tell this endearing tale of the talented but also blunt and self-important Stein and the reserved, self-effacing but equally vital Toklas. Stephanie Blythe as Stein welcomes the audience to her abode with the oft-sung line, “Did I invite you?,” while Elizabeth Futral knits away in the corner as the quietly attentive Toklas.
Each of them displays outstanding vocal abilities, with the renowned mezzo-soprano Blythe making her OTSL debut a most impressive appearance. Soprano Futral, who first worked with Opera Theatre in a performance of Ariadne on Naxos in 1991, is equally adept at measuring Gordon’s intricately lavish notes and shaping Vavrek’s telling libretto.
Playing multiple roles in support of these two stellar stars are Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh and Daniel Brevik, a trio of Gerdine Young Artists who sing impressively as well as handle bizarrely comic moments, such as a wrestling match between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested by Stein to determine ‘genius.’
Lebow’s slighter stature helps in his portrayals of the cocky Picasso and delicate Fitzgerald, while Brevik’s larger frame is suitably imposing in representing the bullish Hemingway (dragging a dead rhino onto stage) as well as a precise Matisse. Greenhalgh brings out Leo Stein’s moodiness and the eccentricities of photographer Man Ray. All three of the men portray various, nameless soldiers who people scenes in World War I and World War II, as 27 rue de Fleurus and all of Paris are engulfed in war.
Vavrek notes Stein’s problematic history as well as her achievements, as even she herself wonders how a Jewish lesbian could survive the Aryan supremacy of The Third Reich, doubtlessly aided as she was by her allegiance to French sympathizers of the Nazi cause.
Conductor Michael Christie leads the Saint Louis Symphony in a spirited interpretation of Gordon’s and Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations of Gordon’s melodically upbeat score. James Robinson’s direction is crisp and straightforward, maintaining a smooth and quickly flowing pace that accentuates the performers’ engaging interpretations.
It’s all laid out in front of Allen Moyer’s evocative set, which features a backdrop of clustered birds on wallpaper that eventually is covered with the names and works of the famous and to-be-famous who clamored for Stein’s attention, literally springing to life from Alice’s knitting at the opera’s start.
James Schuette adds costumes, James Ingalls is the lighting designer, Greg Emetaz provides video and projection design, Tom Watson does makeup and wig designs and Sean Curran is choreographer, all enhancing proceedings.
27 is a sparkling, inventive interpretation of a real place in a real time, ruled by the imperious Stein on her own terms that openly defied convention in the early 20th century.
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 17, 19, 25, 27, 29
Tickets: $25-$125; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard