Written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek
Directed by James Robinson
Briskly paced and delivered with brio, MasterVoices new production takes a refreshingly playful – though by no means sugarcoated – look at some of the key figures of 20 Century culture. Clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission, the opera derives its title from the Paris home where American expats Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived and worked for 40 years. It’s a fitting appellation, both because the domicile housed the first great collection of modern art, and because many public and private dramas were played out within its walls. History, both elevated and barbaric, came to came to call at 27 Rue De Fleurus.
The show begins during the heyday of the budding Modernist movement. Against a backdrop of empty picture frames, Gertrude (Stephanie Blythe), entertains Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray and other art world luminaries. All the artists are eager to have their work anointed by Stein, but co-hostess Alice (Heidi Stober), does a bit of eye rolling. Geniuses, after all, don’t always make the most considerate guests. Nonetheless, she’s happy to see Gertrude collecting works of art that will one day become iconic while working on her own poetry as well. With the advent of World War, the soirees cease for a time as coal and food become scarce. In the prosperous 1920s, the Salon once again becomes the center of an artistic renaissance. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, accompanied by their wives, drop by to drink (and drink, and drink) and discuss new forms of literature. Sadly, Europe again is dragged into war, and Paris falls prey to German occupation. Under the Third Reich, being Jewish, American or openly gay can get a person killed. Gertrude and Alice are all three, yet they make it through the 1940’s unscathed. That’s because Gertrude has befriended high-ranking intellectuals in the collaborationist Vichy government and works as translator of for its rightwing leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain. It’s a puzzling choice for Stein, especially considering that she could have gone back to the States, or slipped away to neutral Switzerland. Whatever the moral cost, Stein survives with her legacy intact: Unlike many other cultural troves, 27 Rue De Fleurus escapes being looted by the Nazis. Throughout it all, Alice remains fiercely devoted. Even death cannot sunder the bond between them.
Whether Gertrude’s collaboration with fascist panjandrums was motivated by passion or pragmatism is a subject still hotly debated by Stein scholars. But composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek aren’t here to pronounce judgment. Their goal is, like Picasso, to paint a warts-and-all portrait of their complex subject. They rise to the challenging admirably, with Gordon’s richly harmonic sound palette encapsulating the bright and dark aspect of Stein’s personality. Likewise Vavrek’s lilting lyrics, many of them reminiscent of Stein’s own poetry, evoke a variety of moods ranging from the heady energy of artistic revolution to wistful reflections on the ravages of time. Blythe’s warm, powerful mezzo-soprano centers the ensemble while lyric soprano Stober, like her character, exhibits affecting purity both individually and in counterpoint with her partner. Under Ted Sperling’s energetic baton, the leads are given ample support by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a 150- member chorus. Bass-baritone Daniel Brevik, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and tenor Theo Lebow gamely morph into a rich array of characters. James Robinson directs with humor and heart, while painterly touches are provided by scenic designer Allen Moyer, costume designer by James Schuette, and lighting design by James F. Ingalls.
27 was performed on October 20th and 21st as 21, 2016 as part of MasterVoices 75th Anniversary Celebration New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street, New York, New York. Website: http://www.mastervoices.org