27 or Twenty-Seven (as in 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, the address at which Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas presided over their famous salon for many years in the earlier decades of the last century), received its first performance last night in the George R. White Opera Studio at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters in the colorful Strip District. The work, with music by Ricky Ian Gordon set to a libretto by Royce Vavrek, was commissioned by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis specifically for the magnificent mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, and was first heard less than two years ago. Pittsburgh Opera’s new production marks the first time the piece has been produced since its world premiere in June 2014. Considering the fact that Gordon and Vavrek were challenged with condensing the relationship between Stein and Toklas, two world wars, Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others into 95 minutes of music and drama, their collaboration to overcome such a daunting task is surprisingly effective.
Stein’s controversial writing style, which her own brother Leo called an “abomination”; which goaded the literary critic Stuart P. Sherman to categorize one of her works as a “marvelous and painstaking achievement in setting down approximately 80,000 words which mean nothing at all,” and prompted James Thurber to include her in his list of “a number of crazy men and women [who] are writing stuff which remarkably passes for important composition among certain persons who should know better,” is necessarily passed over. It must suffice that she is a writer who happens to be an art connoisseur, friend and mentor to the “Lost Generation” of artists and writers living in Paris between the World Wars. By her side for four decades is the faithful Alice B. Toklas; lover, muse, editor, secretary, cook and devoted companion, seemingly shy and retiring, but in truth steely and unbending when necessary.
The immensity of the leading characters’ lives and that of their circle of famous friends and acquaintances would at first glance seem almost impossible to capsulize in operatic form, but with skilled pruning, Gordon and Vavrek have created a plausible and credible work of art. An unfortunate drawback to Pittsburgh Opera’s production is Gordon’s (and Bruce Coughlin’s) highly effective orchestration, which underlines and carries the very contemporary music and text most colorfully. How can this be a drawback? It isn’t included. There is no room for an orchestra in the George R. White Opera Studio. Two pianists, conducted by Mark Trawka, provide the sole instrumental accompaniment. Those who have heard the orchestrated version may be disappointed; others, not so much.
The opera consists of a prologue and five acts, which flow one into the next, without interruption. The prologue (“Alice Knits the World”) discloses Alice B. Toklas in her living room, singing of Gertrude Stein and, in the composer’s words, “knitting the memories of their past back to life.” Gertrude makes a grand entrance into the salon in the first act (“27 rue de Fleurus”), and invites her guests to look over the vast collection of paintings she and her brother Leo have acquired over the years, while she enthuses over the artists and Alice sees to the needs of and entertains all. Pablo Picasso unveils his portrait of Stein, which displeases her brother Leo and Henri Matisse. Leo warns of the coming war, which Stein and Toklas dismiss, and he heads off to Italy, taking Renoirs, a portrait sketch Picasso has made of him, and a Cézanne painting of “5 Apples.” Gertrude and Alice, again, in the composer’s words, “sing of the ringing bells of genius that celebrate their love.” Act Two (“Zeppelins”) finds Stein and Toklas in dire straits, cold, hungry, and begging an American doughboy for coal, cigarettes and eggs. He makes good on the first two, but doesn’t return with the eggs, swallowed instead by the “Lost Generation.”
Act Three (“Génération Perdue”) begins in the first post-war years, as Gertrude increasingly becomes more interested in young writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as the photographer Man Ray. Stein encourages the writers to wrestle for her bestowal of “genius,” one of the more amusing scenes in the opera. But another World War is approaching. Act Four (“Gertrude Stein is Safe, Safe”), reveals that, somehow, two Jewish American women have survived, unscathed, in Nazi-occupied Paris. Here the work takes on some of the cloudiness of Stein’s actual life during this period. Much has been said of her earlier remarks that Hitler deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, that she may have collaborated with the French Vichy, etc. But by World War II, both women were growing old, may not have been fully cognizant of what was taking place around them, and were most likely and quite understandably terrified out of their wits. Such events and psychological drama would seem impossible of a musical interpretation, but the composer and librettist use Picasso’s portrait of Stein as an outlet for her to unburden herself of guilt upon, as she quietly expires in Alice’s arms.
The fifth and final act (“Alice Alone”), finds her anything but, and is perhaps the most abstract of them all. The famous collection of paintings has been crated for shipment back to America and its museums. They “sing” to Alice’s imagination as she knits. She is revisited by Picasso, who wonders if his portrait of her will whisper to the passersby, “Perched high above the crowd, looking down on her public picking out new geniuses?” Gertrude’s portrait sings, as do echoes of the writers from her past. Alice ascends into the portrait, which is now complete.
Adelaide Boedecker, cleverly costumed and “made up,” was a musically and visually appealing Alice. She was comic and dramatic by turns, and sang the somewhat trying music rather well. She displayed, as she has on past occasions, finely honed acting skills and the rare gift of repose when it’s called for. Only on occasions did her powerful voice overwhelm the acoustic properties of the inadequate, small venue, and, consequently, appear slightly shrill in fortissimo passages. But she is an intelligent artist, and will probably fine tune her delivery in the upcoming performances.
Just a few men appear in the production and are called on to fulfil multiple roles throughout. Brian Vu, the gifted baritone, for example, managed to lend his powerful voice and acting abilities to Leo Stein, Man Ray, a doughboy, a soldier – even Madame Henri Matisse. Equally challenged was bass-baritone Matthew Scollin, also a skilled singer and actor, who effectively portrayed Hemingway, Matisse, a soldier and other small parts. Tenor Adam Bonanni had his hands full with Picasso, Fitzgerald, and other roles, but they were for the most part not very distinguished due to his limited bag of acting tricks and a voice that showed promise at the start of the opera but sounded hoarse and fatigued by the final act.
Laurel Semerdjian, of course, dominated as Gertrude Stein. Her rich mezzo-soprano filled the hall with tones that were dark colored velvet in quality. The role is taxing – vocally and dramatically, and her skills in both departments carried her through the evening almost flawlessly. She was a charming picture as well, and will no doubt bring even more to the role with each repetition. It was a treat to see and hear this gifted young woman in a starring part. She wore it very well, indeed.
Again, nothing can be said of the orchestra, because it stayed home, but James Lesniak and Karen Jeng at their pianos, with Mark Trawka waving a stick between them, did probably all that could be reasonably expected to bring the score to life. Judging from the volume and length of applause at the conclusion of the opera, the audience liked the performance very much, and their pleasure increased greatly when the composer and librettist themselves stepped forward for their shares of the acclaim.
The opera will be repeated on February 23, 26, and 28, and patronage of the production is very much recommended.
For full production, cast, schedule and ticket information, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.
“The Artistic Team” for 27 (Twenty-Seven) –
Mark Trawka, Conductor; Jennifer Williams, Stage Director; Julia Noulin-Mérat, Set Designer; Richard Parsakian, Costume Designer; Todd Nonn, Lighting Designer; Nicole Pagano, Hair & Makeup Designer; Glenn Lewis, Head of Music; James Lesniak, Associate Coach; James Lesniak and Karen Jeng, Pianists; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager. Photography – David Bachman.