’27’ evokes the genius of Gertrude Stein and showcases the MOT studio artists
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Two women lived at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, in a time that spanned two World Wars. In the Saturday evening salons they hosted, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas created a sort of hot-house where genius could flourish, safe from the philistinism, strife and violence that clawed at the world just outside their door. This is the subject of 27, the brilliant and uniquely romantic opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek. 27 was originally commissioned by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and directed by James Robinson; this co-production is currently being staged by Michigan Opera Theatre as a showcase for the 2017-2018 class of MOT Studio Artists.
This opera is everything the modern theatre-going audience could desire. The love story of Stein and Toklas is historically true, poignantly relevant, and told through an English-language libretto of irresistible charm. The music is gorgeous, with moments both sweet and soaring; the score is complex enough to be interesting without becoming obscure or self-indulgent. The singing is just breathtaking – these artists give you everything they’ve got, and they’ve got quite a bit. If that’s not enough to recommend this new MOT production, consider that 27 runs straight through without intermission and, by opera standards, is relatively short. What’s not to love?
27 consists of a prelude followed by five short, seamless acts identified by titles projected above the stage. The story opens as Alice B. Toklas– who lived a lonely 20 years after Gertrude Stein passed – attempts to reknit the story of their time together by literally knitting a vast comforter. As Alice brings the past back to life, Gertrude Stein enters to welcome guests to her salon. In short order we meet a parade of nascent geniuses, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Man Ray. While Gertrude holds court with the men, it falls to Alice to entertain the wives and mistresses, serve the food, and clean up after.
Soprano Monica Dewey as Toklas and mezzo-soprano Briana Elyse Hunter as Stein make a spectacular duo. When they sing about the “ringing bells of genius” it’s as if they are braiding their voices into a love plait, replete with satin ribbon. The acting is strong as well. Toklas understands her role as wife to Stein’s domineering, masculine personality. But both Dewey and Hunter manage to convey how balanced their relationship really was. Even though Stein was the driving force behind the salons, Toklas was the force that kept Stein going—inspired her, encouraged her, and ran interference with unwelcome intruders, physical and psychological.
All the other characters in this opera (including the wives and mistresses) are played by a trio of men who work so well together that we can only conclude they were having as much fun as the audience. Tenor Michael Day (Picasso and Fitzgerald), Baritone Harry Greenleaf (Leo Stein and Man Ray) and Bass-Baritone Erik Van Heyningen (Matisse and Hemingway) each have fine solo moments in this show, but they are simply thrilling when they sing as a trio. Because the walls of the historical Stein apartment were covered with some of the most famous paintings of that era, this opera uses the clever device of having the “paintings” (our trio of gentlemen) form a sort of Greek chorus that comments on the action and even speaks directly to the women.
This concept is supported by scenic design by Allen Moyer consisting of massive, empty frames which the characters step in and out of. These are set against a backdrop of oversized period wallpaper (periwinkle, adorned with lovebirds) and minimal set pieces. Costumes by James Schuette put the women in outfits that are suggested by Man Ray’s photographs. The men, who are conjured to the stage by Alice’s knitting, appear in gray knit breaches and vests over which they layer signature pieces to identify the iconic characters they are playing. Even Gertrude’s beloved standard poodle, Basket, is represented as a giant knit dog.
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon, in a pre-show talk, explained that he urged librettist Vavrek to explore the controversy regarding the bubble of safety that seemed to protect 27 rue de Fleurus. In a time when the Nazis were rounding up both Jews and homosexuals like cattle, how could these conspicuous women escape notice? It is the paintings – Stein’s own guilt – that give voice to the accusations of collaboration with Nazi puppets in the Vichy regime. Alice Toklas comes to her defense, insisting that Stein’s genius, and the world she created in 27 rue de Fleurus, is something set apart, separate from the outside world and above censure.
It is ironic, perhaps, that an opera focused so much on the concept of genius should itself prove the case. The powerfully compact and compelling score – matched by the virtuosity of these MOT Studio Artists – reveals something of that sparkle we associate with genius. Catch it while you can at Ann Arbor’s Arthur Miller Theatre or, next weekend, at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts.