WEBSTER GROVES, MO. – These days, it seems that everything is an opera festival simply because the people who operate and sell a given enterprise say it is.
The Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which completed its 39th spring season over the weekend at the Loretto-Hilton Center here, is something else again: a festival in deed as well as name. Subscription revenue and attendance were up by more than eight percent this season, bucking national trends. The Opera Theatre brand stands for artistic integrity, even on those rare occasions when good intentions misfire.
A typical St. Louis season allows you to catch a world premiere, check out a promising young American singer before his or her fee goes up, or simply remind yourself of the pleasures of hearing operas sung (well) in English in a comfortable, intimate setting with good acoustics and sightlines, and the St. Louis Symphony in the pit.
The season's four operas generated the usual quotient of lively conversation in the striped party tent on the green adjacent to the theater, where opera goers gather for drinks following the performances.
The most newsworthy event was the world premiere of "Twenty Seven," with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and text by Royce Vavrek, about Gertrude Stein, her lover and companion Alice B. Toklas and the colorful crowd they invited to their famed salons at the apartment-cum-modern-art gallery they shared on 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris before, during and after World War I.
The first thing that must be said about the 90-minute opera, cleverly staged by OTSL artistic director James Robinson, is that Gordon's lyrical, singable, accessible music is as beautifully tailored for the rich voice and charismatic stage presence of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as the close-cropped wig and mannish vest she sported as Stein.
Stein was her own greatest creation, and both Gordon and Vavrek treat her with wit and affection, even if they gloss over her many contradictions and failings.
"Twenty Seven" essentially is a celebration of the love Stein and Toklas shared up until Stein's death in 1946. Toklas effectively served as the author's wife, lover, partner, stenographer, business manager and housekeeper, as the pair opened their parlor to various "Lost Generation" artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Man Ray.
Blythe seized on her role with a larger-than-life gusto Stein would have recognized. Indeed, both Blythe and soprano Elizabeth Futral, who took the less showy role of Toklas, reminded us what superb singing actresses can do to flesh out rather slight material. Their deft blending of voices and keen dramatic chemistry made the new work worth seeing and hearing, along with the deft conducting of Michael Christie.
Vavrek's libretto dabbles in the loopy repetitions of Steinspeak, and lots of words were projected onto Allen Moyer's simple but effective set. That said, I came away from "Twenty Seven" unsure of what made Stein tick and what drew so many creative spirits of the period to her soirees, only to be subjected to her bullying and indomitable belief in herself.
Indeed, the depiction of Picasso, Fitzgerald and other artistic firebrands of the era – well sung and played by members of OTSL's Gerdine Young Artists program – felt superficial. Gordon and Vavrek play these sketchy supporting players for laughs, as when the testosterone-fueled Hemingway (Daniel Brevik) dragged in a plastic carcass of a rhino he had brought back from an African safari.
The word "genius" was bandied about endlessly, but the cartoonish figures serving here as narrators, Greek chorus and a barbershop-style quartet chorus gave us no clue as to what made them so. (Woody Allen's depiction of those Young Turks in his film "Midnight in Paris" suffered much the same shortcoming.) As far as I'm concerned, both of the Virgil Thomson operas based on Stein texts – "Four Saints in Three Acts" and "The Mother of Us All" – do a better job of capturing Stein's inimitable sensibility.
'Dialogues of the Carmelites'
Francis Poulenc's 1957 masterwork is an opera of ideas rather than action, as you would expect from an opera that has "dialogues" in its title. Set against the actual martyrdom of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, the libretto focuses on the spiritual transformation of Blanche de la Force, a French aristocrat who seeks refuge from her fear of the surrounding political and social turmoil by entering the Carmelite convent at Compiegne.
An intimate music drama such as this could only benefit from being given in a small theater and sung in the language of the audience, as the composer preferred. The Opera Theatre gave it a brilliant production in which all of its virtues and none of its defects (chiefly, talkiness) were allowed to mar its deeply moving effect.
Robin Guarino's austere but intelligent production used a dark-wooden enclosure by set designer with Andrew Lieberman that served variously as chapel, laundry, prison and scaffold. Everything pointed inexorably to the powerful final scene, where the nuns, having taken a vow of martyrdom before being sentenced to death by the revolutionary tribunal, walked to the guillotine singing the "Salve Regina." The offstage "thunk" of the steel blade chilled one's blood.
Soprano Kelly Kaduce, a longtime St. Louis favorite, was an affecting, firmly sung Blanche, gradually revealing the vulnerability at the core of this fretful neurotic. Her opposite was Sister Constance, a sunny chatterbox of naive, unquestioning faith, vivaciously portrayed by soprano Ashley Emerson.
With her rock-solid contralto and keen dramatic presence, Meredith Arwady made the death scene of the embittered old prioress, Madame de Croissy, absolutely unforgettable. Fresh from her Lyric Opera appearance as another Mother Superior, in "The Sound of Music," soprano Christine Brewer sang imposingly as the new prioress, Madame Lidoine. The penetrating mezzo of Daveda Karanas, as Mother Marie, tended to harden and lose focus at full cry.
Poulenc's ravishingly beautiful score was in good hands in the pit, with Ward Stare – the former first trombone of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, now a rising star in the conducting firmament – enforcing color, nuance and flow in his musicians.
'The Magic Flute'
The celebrity fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi had a big hit with his production of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at OTSL four years ago, so it made good box-office sense, I suppose, to invite him back to direct and design another popular piece. But Mozart's ever-delightful singspiel was the wrong choice.
Turning the piece into a 1950s Hollywood-movie fantasy as orchestrated by an ever-present Queen of the Night (Claire de Sevigne, done up as Gloria Swanson) may have sounded like good campy fun on paper but it proved silly and pointless in the realization.
Apparently not trusting Mozart's music to drive the action, Mizrahi filled the stage with dancing doubles for the lovers Pamina and Tamino (Elizabeth Zharoff and Sean Panikkar), also lots of scampering, feathered cartoon animals and birds. A crib from the classic Vincente Minnelli movie "The Band Wagon" was particularly annoying. At least the kids at the matinee performance I attended seemed to enjoy this show.
Except for De Sevigne and Matthew Di Battista as the comic villain Monostatos, one heard little in the way of exceptional singing, and that applied to Levi Hernandez as the tailcoated, oddly mature bird-catcher Papageno and Matthew Anchel as Sarastro. Fortunately OTSL music director Stephen Lord (who replaced Jane Glover as conductor late in the run) honored the letter and spirit of Mozart attentively, and the orchestra played very well for him.
The 2015 Opera Theatre of St. Louis season promises Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," Puccini's "La Rondine," Handel's "Richard the Lionheart" (American premiere) and Tobias Picker's "Emmeline."
Twitter @jvonrheinCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun