Opera Theatre review: Veteran and new voices shine in '27'

For the News-DemocratJune 24, 2014 

Starring two of the world's finest female singers in their St. Louis debut, the original work "27" was quite an anticipated occasion, charming eager audiences.

And with sublime, powerful, expressive voices, superstars Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral were a joy to behold, deserving of their robust ovations. Brava!

However, the biggest surprise of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' grand premiere was the striking breakthrough performances of the Gerdine Young Artists male trio, heretofore unknowns.

Remember the names Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh and Daniel Brevik. They excelled at portraying all the male characters distinctively and effortlessly, showcasing solid acting and strong singing in intricate, demanding supporting roles. Their enthusiastic reception boosted the production merits considerably. Bravo!

Expatriate poet Gertrude Stein coined the term "The Lost Generation," reflecting those who came of age during and after World War I.

Her unconventional life is legendary, and her influence on literature and art is vast. After all, she was godmother to Hemingway's firstborn and collected iconic paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and many others.

Commissioned composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek focused on the epic gatherings of major artists and writers at the home Stein shared with life partner Alice B. Toklas, 27 rue de Fleurus on Paris' Left Bank, for this piece.

Blythe commands the stage as the larger-than-life writer, and Futral shades the demure Toklas with more color than expected. Their emotionally resonating duets were exquisite.

The domestic union of the world's most famous lesbian couple is a fairly mundane story. However, Toklas' extolling the simple joys of carrots and green beans is matched by her exasperation at being relegated to entertain the spouses of the visiting titans.

She could hold her own. Stein held court on Saturday evenings, mentoring some of the great artists of the 20th century. The debate on genius, believe it or not, adds a touch of humor to the story.

Their relationship, out loud (obviously way ahead of its time), may not be the drama one expects in an operatic form. But the artists currying favor and competing for attention at the salons adds an interesting angle.

Both Jews, the couple manages to escape persecution during Hitler's reign, and that's reflected as well. The world's turmoil intrudes, not letting us forget those times.

One of the problems inherent to any work depicting major characters who are creative artists is that the thought process is hard to externalize. That is the case here, but they expand the story's scope.

Director James Robinson, OTSL's artistic director, imaginatively staged it, using large frames to add depth. The palette for set and costumes is a rather glum one, but reflects the era, and the screen projection enhanced the experience.

The opera is sung in English and lyrics are projected on the side.

Vavrek used Stein's repetitive and playful style in some of his lyrics, and variety was lacking.

Nevertheless, Michael Christie's conducting was superb, and the music often sounded majestic in the fine hands of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra members, reminiscent of a sweeping film score.

While the women were considerably fleshed out, the literary giants were mere caricatures -- Hemingway the macho man and Fitzgerald the dapper drinker. I expected more, an insider look similar to what Woody Allen did with the same characters in "Midnight in Paris."

But for a work of rich cultural significance, "27" makes its mark. There is a there there, to paraphrase Stein.

What: "27"

Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis

When: June 25, 27, 29

Where: Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis

Tickets: 314-961-0644; www.experienceopera.org

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