Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek’s rich and wonderful recent opera “27” had its New York premiere at New York City Center on October 20, thanks to MasterVoices, formerly the Collegiate Chorale. “27” is the life story and love story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, “her secretary,” “her biographer,” and most importantly, “her wife,” and the story of collections, of paintings and of creative artists. “27” is a portrait gallery, like “Four Saints in Three Acts,” and a history pageant, like “The Mother of Us All,” Stein’s operas with Virgil Thomson, and one can envision it taking a place in a festival with them, as it continues to get the exposure it deserves. “27” is lyrical and funny and thoughtful, when it’s supposed to be, and dramatic and heartrending, when it has to be. “27” takes its name from Stein and Toklas’ home and artist salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, in Paris, and we’re all invited.
“27” is a triumph for Gordon and Vavrek and a tour-de-force for all of the performers: for earth mother mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who embodies Stein, much as she does Orfeo, Fricka, Giuseppe Verdi’s tempestuous mezzos, and Kate Smith, and hardly less so for expressive soprano Heidi Stober, succeeding Elizabeth Futral of the 2014 St. Louis world premiere, as Toklas; for the trio of high tenor Theo Lebow, incisive baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, and booming bass-baritone Daniel Brevik, portraying the painters and their wives, writers, villains, soldiers, and the paintings themselves; for the MasterVoices, cheerfully welcoming us to the famous address, celebrating the end of Stein’s writer’s block, and harshly trying Stein in an imaginary courtroom scene; and for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, giving us the lighthearted “La Bohème”-like opening, chimes, and storms, under Ted Sperling’s baton. James Robinson directed and designs were by Allen Moyer (set), James Schuette (costumes), James F. Ingalls (lighting), and Tom Watson (wigs).
Memorable moments abound, from Stober’s Toklas’ ringing solo, which becomes a grand love duet with Blythe, limning the bells that signal the arrival of genius and giving reassurance that Stein will write again; Blythe’s Stein’s towering ’11-o’clock number,” “I’ve Been Called Many Things,” summing up her life, from within a picture frame, after her death, much as Mother of Us All Susan B. Anthony’s statue looks back over her “long long life;” Toklas’ pointed commentary about the artists’ wives, whose vapid conversation runs to hats and furs, courtesy of Lebow, Greenhalgh, and Brevik, seconded by MasterVoices; Lebow’s Picasso’s flattery, despair, and whimsy, and return to the widowed Toklas’ side in time to see his painting of Stein shipped off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Greenhalgh and Brevik’s tirades, as the homophobic villains of the piece, respectively Stein’s brother Leo, who denigrates her writing, Alice’s place in Stein’s life, and Picasso’s paintings, and macho ingrate Ernest Hemingway, entering schlepping an elephant corpse, and cursing Stein and her writing as he leaves; and the powerful trial scene, where the ensemble accuses Stein of collaborating with the Vichy government, puppet of the Nazis, an episode Gordon and Vavrek do not shy away from, when Gertrude compromised to save her life and Alice’s—Jewish lesbians in a dangerously hostile environment—and the art collection as well.
Following the two performances of “27,” MasterVoices’ season continues with two operas-in-progress, Theo Popov and Tony Asaro’s “The Halloween Tree,” after Ray Bradbury, on October 30, and Justine F. Chen and David Simpatico’s “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing,” on January 12, 2017, both at Merkin Concert Hall; and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion,” with Michael Slattery, Jesse Blumberg, Latonia Moore, Tamara Mumford, and Ben Bliss, on February 9, and Victor Herbert’s “Babes in Toyland,” with Kelli O’Hara, Bill Irwin, Lauren Worsham, and Christopher Fitzgerald, on April 27, both at Carnegie Hall. Visit www.mastervoices.org
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