Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Composer: Ricky Ian Gordon
Librettist: Royce Vavrek
Conductor: Michael Christie
Gertrude Stein: Stephanie Blythe
Alice B. Toklas: Elizabeth Futral
Everyone else: Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh, Daniel Brevik
27 is short for 27 Rue de Fleurus, the address of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas in Paris. It is also the title of a new opera at Opera Theater of Saint Louis.
Waiting for the before-performance lecture to begin I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me. We compared notes about being Gertrude Stein fanatics, and about sneaking inside the gate at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. She was caught and got thrown out, but I made it into the back where the famous atelier still stood and escaped with no one catching me.
I told her of our summer of Steins in San Francisco where many of the art works were on display and Four Saints in Three Acts was presented. I told her how I had read all the biographies and many of the works. Perhaps I am over trained for this performance. I'm trying to think of a biographical opera that isn't about a queen.
I came because I once portrayed Gertrude Stein in an opera. Her character was much more completely developed here.
Their favorite Stein phrase was "Before the flowers of friendship faded, friendship faded." This was all I recognized, I must say.
The opera was divided into 5 short acts with the first one the longest. I very much liked the portrayal of Leo Stein. Let's start with something good. I love that the librettist included Basket, Gertrude and Alice's standard white poodle.
Now we get into complaints.
My biggest complaint concerns the portrayal of Gertrude Stein in WWI. In the opera she whines about being safe and not having any coal. In real life she drove an ambulance, not really the choice of someone obsessed with safety.
She makes ridiculously insulting remarks to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. If she spoke like that to them, why would they keep coming back? Why would Hemingway remember them so fondly in his memoir?
This is GS for the 21st century. She constantly calls Alice wife, something I don't really recall. This could always be just my memory. I do recall "lovey" and "pussy." The most favorably portrayed aspect of the real Gertrude Stein in this opera is of her relationship with Alice.
The librettist spent 3 weeks familiarizing himself with Gertrude, resulting in small incidents being blown up into huge parts of the plot. It is true that after France was liberated, Gertrude announced to the world that she was safe. This was blown up into a constant whining theme throughout the opera.
We are dealing with a mythical GS. They may be forgiven for the fact that by the beginning of WWII they no longer lived at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Also no mention was made of the fact that during the war they lived at their summer home in the French countryside where they were protected by their French neighbors.
One of Gertrude's pre-war friends knew where she lived, and when he became a member of the Vichy government of France, in exchange for not telling the Nazis they were Jews and where they lived, he required her to do translations for him. Not wanting to be massacred isn't really one of the major crimes in the world. Admittedly her political views at this period of history were not what today is regarded as politically correct.
Stephanie Blythe is a force of nature and was very convincing in the role. She dressed as Gertrude between the wars. Elizabeth Futral successfully suggested Alice.
I enjoyed the music which was very good for singing. It was dramatically and theatrically coherent enough for the audience to occasionally burst into applause, always at exactly the right moment. The supertitles were too small.
This isn't my Gertrude Stein. This GS is an arrogant, self-aggrandizing, cowardly, disgusting Nazi bitch. I naturally have a different opinion. They were focused entirely on making this a fun entertainment, and in many ways they succeeded.