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Performances

Elizabeth Futral as Alice B. Toklas and Stephanie Blythe as Gertrude Stein in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 2014 production of “27.” [Photo by Ken Howard]
08 Jul 2014

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

A review by James Sohre

Above: Elizabeth Futral as Alice B. Toklas and Stephanie Blythe as Gertrude Stein in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 2014 production of 27. [Photo by Ken Howard]

 

Based on the life, or perhaps rather the persona of the iconic Gertrude Stein, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek have gifted us with 27, a taut, witty and affecting new piece of lyric theatre. The duo has crafted a fast-paced, multi-faceted, compressed overview of the writer’s life that touches on all of the high points that occurred at the legendary salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, resulting in a sort of highly engaging “Gertrude Stein for Dummies.”

Mr. Vavrek’s lean and mean script borrows its succinct cadence from Ms. Stein’s style and seems to have inspired Mr. Gordon to respond with a score that is equal parts effervescence, tenderness, and confrontation. Throw in more than a few moments of defiance, deliberation and defeat, and you get an idea of the variety of the aural palette. Both Gertrude and her “wife” Alice B. Toklas are individually characterized, and have a definable and consistent musical identity. There are unifying recurring motifs, such as Gertrude urging her visitors to “peruse, peruse” the art on her walls. Too, her musings of the meaning and responsibilities of being a genius are threaded through the episodic structure.

I will not soon forget the final, powerful scena in which Stein justifies the choices she actively made, and reconciles with the choices that were thrust upon her. Mr. Gordon beautifully alternates her vocal line between demonstrative jagged leaps, and introspective melismatic musings. Arguably the highpoint of the score was the moving love duet for Gertrude and Alice that was characterized by sensuous, meandering, intertwining thirds, murmured endearments and honest devotion.

In a brilliant stroke, the cast was completed by only three men who at times functioned as a finely-tuned Greek Chorus, but at others found them playing multiple major characters, to include (humorously) three nondescript “wives of geniuses.” All the usual suspects were there: Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, to name a few.

It cannot be overstated that the peerless Stephanie Blythe was a tour de force as Gertrude Stein. Ms. Blythe’s instrument is one the glories of present day operatic life. She is a consummate artist who knows how to make every moment count. Physically imposing and absolutely right for the part, she commands the stage at every moment, as inscrutable as the terra cotta sculpture of Stein in the National Portrait Gallery. We miss her when she leaves the stage, however briefly. Although her commanding mezzo can certainly fill a room with no effort, Ms. Blythe finds a varied and well-balanced approach to her assignment. Her lyrical singing is beautifully negotiated and her cooing with Alice encompasses a grand palette of affectionate colorings. But when the situation warrants, and she pours on the steam, you are instantly served notice that this is one of the powerhouse voices of our time.

As the more reticent Alice, Elizabeth Futral has to do more with less fireworks and she succeeds admirably. Her lyric soprano has assumed a pleasing patina of maturity, and she has developed into somewhat a sought after specialist of contemporary roles. As the deferential life partner, she uses her diminutive figure to advantage and summons forth an endearing waif-like quality. Her singing is silvery and secure, and she paces herself very well so that when she does have a dramatic outburst (like when she decries violence) it is all the more startling and effective.

Given the artistic stature of these two women, OTSL invested a lot in the three Gerdine Young Artists it cast in the three men’s roles. Their trust was well-placed. Tenor Theo Lebow spends the most time of any of them as one character over the course of the evening and he scores a considerable success in recurring appearances as Pablo Picasso. His sound is gleaming and fresh, and he tore into the role’s key moments with ferocity, tempering the outbursts with singing that displayed a sweet sheen. Tobias Greenhalgh’s riveting baritone was well-suited to the arrogant Leo Stein, with power to spare, and he also brought a humorous sensitivity to Man Ray. Daniel Brevik’s imposing bass-baritone could rattle the rafters one moment and be lullingly conversational the next. Individually these three young men were exceptional, and together, they rewarded us with many impressive trios, accounting for some of the score’s best moments.

Conductor Michael Christie led an assured reading in the pit, and elicited a sense of spontaneity and discovery that were infectious. The orchestra has never sounded better or more vibrant, finding a beautiful arc to the piece and filling it with haunting detail. Allen Moyer’s evocative set design was masterful. Floor to ceiling ‘wallpaper’ panels with oversized patterns were hung at disparate heights and allowed for actors to appear and exit quite magically between the hangings. The silvery-blue color suggested eternity, and large, ornate empty picture frames were propped up or scattered about the space. A solid chair-cum-throne for Gertrude and a smaller, homier chair and side table for Alice were almost all that completed the look, but these elements provided all that was needed, including a huge sign bearing the number 27 which was flown in and out at opportune moments.

James F. Ingalls has contributed his usual excellent lighting design, one that incorporates a terrific video and projection design from Greg Emetaz. James Schuette’s spot-on costumes for the leading ladies were complemented by the men’s basic, neutral vest and knickers, to which clever, character-specific pieces were effortlessly added and subtracted. Director James Robinson has few equals when it comes to making new, untried pieces come to life on a stage. His clarity, specificity and imagination have made a potent case for 27. He has helped his performers find a truth in all they do, all the while balancing that with theatrical stage business that amuses and informs. I loved Hemingway striding on, rifle under his arm, and dragging with him a dead rhinoceros he had bagged. Ditto the fidgety, fussy business concocted for a tippling F. Scott Fitzgerald. How about the giddy visual of that life-sized, stuffed pet dog on wheels? Or the enormous piece of knitting that Alice had created suggesting years of blissful routine. But Mr. Robinson could also turn all this whimsy on its head, and suddenly turn deadly serious. When Gertrude was accused of, and exposed for colluding with the enemy in wartime, two of the lads “trapped” Gertrude in the docket by piling empty picture frames over her, suggesting a piling up of evidence. A triumph.

Saint Louis continues its tradition of performing all works in English, so the next day’s Donizetti was offered as The Elixir of Love. The company has adapted a well-traveled production in which set designer Allen Moyer places the piece in Anytown, USA just prior to WW1. The effective setting consists of a colorful, Grant-Wood-inspired backdrop, and a large white pagoda/band stand filling up stage left and center, trimmed with red-white and blue bunting. The other delightful elements are a full-sized ice cream truck that Nemorino drives on (and staffs) stage right, and a period motorcycle with sidecar steered into position stage left by Dulcamara.

The late Martin Pakledinaz’s colorful and apt costumes have been well coordinated and adapted by Amanda Seymour. The football team was especially evocative, and the suggestion of camaraderie and teamwork tellingly morphed into volunteering for the war effort. The splashy attire of that period of Americana was warmly, lovingly lit by Michael Chybowski. Tom Watson’s effective wig and make-up design was like a cherry on the top of one of Nemorino’s sundaes.

As Adina, the lovely Susannah Biller joined a growing list of highly accomplished lyric sopranos whose OTSL appearances announced their ‘arrival’ and embarkation on what will surely be a successful career in the majors. (Recently, Heidi Stober and Corinne Winters also come to mind). Ms. Biller offers a limpid, gleaming soprano with well-honed technique and beautifully judged effects. Her high notes, low notes, and all notes in between are seamlessly matched, informed with dramatic meaning, and glow with inner life.

Tim Mix’s bearded, side-burned, übercool Belcore, has a buzzing swagger in his voice, testosterone in his delivery, and he presents a total performance that is blustery and appealing. Mr. Mix is also not afraid to explore darker corners of the Sergeant’s personality, with good results. As Dulcamara, Patrick Carfizzi wowed me even more than he did last summer as Central City’s Bartolo (Barber of Seville). Not only is Mr. Carfizzi a splendid comic actor, but he is a polished singer, who offers refulgent tone, clean diction, and a well-rounded characterization. Patrick’s swindling and scheming is anything but a buffoonish caricature. Giannetta was strongly cast with a Gerdine Young Artist, the animated and appealing Leela Subramaniam. She made a sweet impression, her clear and characterful singing commanding plenty of firepower to include some excellent climactic high notes that rose easily above the ensemble.

What to say of René Barbera as Nemorino, except that he may arguably be the most effortlessly endearing, lovably bumbling, beguilingly boyish Nemorino since the great Pavarotti. I know, I know, we are always looking to anoint someone as “The Next (fill-in-the-blank).” I don’t make the comparison lightly. I saw lovable Luciano in it. Mr. Barbera has that same charisma, that star power, that indefinable magnetism that cannot be manufactured. When his round face beams in delight, we want to spread him on a cracker and eat him. When he is in despair, we want to hold him and comfort him. He makes us care to ‘connect.’

Happily, his shining, pointed lyric tenor easily fills the hall with no sign of strain. Mr. Barbera presented a flawless, wondrous Una furtiva lagrima that had us so bewitched we scarcely dared breathe, lest any sound break the honeyed perfection. It was one of “those moments” that we opera freaks live for. It is why we keep going and going, sitting through lots of “good” performances, and a few not-so-good. We keep going because we know that every so often, there is a moment like this. When René released that perfectly rendered final note, the place went nuts. I mean, World Cup soccer nuts. It was as though ‘the Pav’ had been on stage with him and passed the torch, the ovation was no less rapturous than for that legendary predecessor. René Barbera is now the Nemorino by which I will judge future interpreters.

Director Jose Maria Condemi did yeoman’s work in crafting fluid and spontaneous stage pictures, and inventing appropriate ‘period’ business. During the overture, Mr. Condemi, had Adina enter dreamily, then had Nemorino discover her, get an idea and go off stage only to return to bring her an ice cream cone. And then, just as he is about to pass it to her, starry-eyed, the ice cream scoop falls to the ground leaving him holding an empty cone. She giggles. He despairs. What a perfect way to establish the relationship and the premise. The director found countless ways to use the unit set, the steps, the moving vehicles, to create variety and meaningful movement. There was no end to the creative comic touches and everything was kept merrily bubbling along. Until. . .

In one brilliant moment, at the end of Act One, Belcore suddenly got deadly serious and began assaulting his rival Nemorino until he quite brutally shoved him to the ground to audible gasps of dismay from the audience. Nemorino was humiliated, Belcore had become fearsome, Adina had overplayed her game. When the tenor launched into Adina credimi it came from the depths of his soul and there were few dry eyes on the house.

In the pit, Stephen Lord presided with his usual skill and stylistic acumen, the Maestro totally at one with his cast and making the orchestra a full partner in the drama. Robert Ainsley had prepared the chorus immaculately. Here’s a text book lesson in how to produce rousing comic opera, with efficiency, honesty, variety, and with ultimate deference to top-notch music-making. The gauntlet has been thrown.

After the effervescence and tunefulness of Elixir, Poulenc’s musical vocabulary could not have been further on the other end of the spectrum. Dialogues of the Carmelites is based on conversational speech, internalized conflict, and spiritual transformation. It is a moody, unsettling, pulsating evening of theatre with a final glorious payoff that is unlike any other in lyric theatre. The cast is almost all women, the spare structure of the scenes often between two or three characters.

Ward Stare’s conducting found all the underlying spiritual beauty in the rhythmic, lean score. Maestro Stare layered the orchestral colors with commendable balance and taste, and he never lost sight of the musical destination of any given scene or set piece. He elicited especially incisive moments from the winds, and coaxed burnished tones from the brass section. The percussive effects were subtle yet provided a solid foundation for many climactic moments. Best of all he provided a secure cushion of sound as a springboard to encourage the best from the singers. And what a group they were!

Ashley Emerson was a definitive Constance. Her pliable soprano floats with ease, and Ms. Emerson has the glimmer of sunshine in her voice. Her winning stage presence made for a memorable star turn. No less accomplished was the imposing achievement of Meredith Arwady as the Old Prioress. This was easily the finest performance I have yet seen from Ms. Arwady, her potent contralto pulsing through her punishing death scene like it was written for her. Not merely content to pin our ears back with her steely capabilities, she found a fine subtlety of expression in her brief but memorable stage time, tugging at our hearts with her fate and her fears.

Kelly Kaduce inhabits every role she assumes, so it comes as no surprise that she found every ounce of tremulous emotion and nuance in the character of Blanche. Her focused lyric instrument was a good fit for the role, and Ms. Kaduce effectively limned all the dramatic milestones in Blanche’s trip to redemption and eternal peace. She was an exemplary proponent of this rather gentle girl who has a profound transformation. As Madame Lidoine, local heroine Christine Brewer proved yet again why she generates such loyal admiration from the Saint Louis public. Her generous, golden soprano is in fine estate, and every well-turned phrase was a cause for celebration. For my money, Ms. Brewer far out-distances that famous arch as the top local treasure.

Daveda Karanas was an especially pleasing Mother Marie, with a sizable, round soprano that was a refreshing change from the acidic approach that one often encounters with this role. In such heady company, Ms. Karanas held her own, both musically and dramatically. The ensemble of nuns was all one could wish, blending seamlessly and performing with assurance and commitment. The Ave Maria was as lovely as I have heard anywhere. Poulenc gives his men far fewer chances to shine, but Troy Cook was a solid Marquis de la Force, while Michael Porter’s pleasing tenor served well the tessitura of the Marquis. It is a testament to both that I wished the composer had given them more to sing.

Director Robin Guarino found profundity in minimalism. The ever-changing uses of furniture and isolated, moody lighting (Mr, Ingalls again) were all that were needed for this tale of religious commitment. On occasion, I felt that perhaps characters were moved about to create pictures rather than serve the text’s motivation, but the staging was clean and well-executed. While there is little chance to show off as a costume designer in a show that centers around nun’s habits, Kaye Voyce’s clothing served the actors well in communicating the characters.

I was less taken with the basic structure of Andrew Lieberman’s set. Consisting of a generic room, a sort of inner chamber that was wood-paneled, I felt it distanced us from the action on several occasions. It spun easily and got re-purposed a number of times, but no matter how it was placed, the pillars holding up the ceiling, were obstructing the view for someone in the audience. I for one watched the Old Prioress die as she moved from one side of the pillar to another and back again. Nonetheless, Carmelites wove a powerful spell, marked by exceptional English diction that was effectively coached by Erie Mills.

Uh-oh. Magic Flute program note: “This production takes place on an eternal Hollywood soundstage depicting the realms of the Queen of the Night.”

And so it began. During a staged overture (is that a requirement at OTSL now?), Norma Desmond appears high above on a stage-wide bridge, turbaned, sleek, and if I was reading her body language right, pissed off. This tiresome catwalk structure owns a set of rolling stairs that get hooked up to various “gates,” none of them interesting. A loading dock door upstage center first opens to allow grips and stage hands to scuffle their feet during the music, and later reveals a star curtain, bucolic drops, etc.

May I say that the sound stage concept is false nearly from the start? Film set pieces get rolled into place, and we are asked to believe that what we are seeing is being filmed, yet there is not a camera or boom in sight. Moreover, not one musical piece is allowed to finish cleanly (and audibly) since as soon as the singing stops, the crew rushes in to noisily dis-engage brakes, roll stuff around, and generally make extra-musical noise.

In fact, creating distractions is what director Isaac Mizrahi seemed to be all about. Mr. Mizrahi also designed the sets and costumes, something he did with considerable success for “A Little night Music” a few season back. The ‘Designer Isaac’ did ‘Director Isaac’ no favors. He hampered the staging by constraining the situations with iconic 1950’s Hollywood images. Gene Kelly (Tamino)? Check. WC Fields (Papageno)? Check. Dorothy/Alice in Wonderland (Pamina)? Gloria Swanson (Queen)? The “Triplets” from Band Wagon (Spirits)? Check, check, check.

The problem is these have no definable resonance with the Masonic trials, not to mention the basic plot of The Magic Flute. We are asked to believe that some lurking, ominous turbaned Eternal Feminine is, what? The Phantom of the Sound Stage? And why does Monastatos look like he flunked a Blue Man Group audition? (Yes, he’s blue.) Never you mind, because we are going to completely upstage them anyway with dancing! When did Mozart’s opus become The Magic Frug?

The serpent pursuing Tamino is a slinky sequined dancer, who I guess was going to sex him to death. During Dies Bildnis a Pamina dance double emerges from a living portrait to pirouette and flounce all over the stage. Poor Papageno gamely sang his entrance aria amidst a feathered Papagena ballerina, a Big Bird clone, and a pink ostrich in high heels that looked like a Lion King (or La Cage Aux Folles) applicant. They got giggles, but the P-Man could have had a sparkler in his teeth and no one would have paid him any mind, although Levi Hernandez sang well enough and put his all into the role. John Heginbotham’s choreography was well-intended but it proved generic, with some staged numbers (moving in-step like the Andrews Sisters) obvious and bland.

In contrast to this busy-ness, other direction was mostly static and straight front, with the audience on the sides of the thrust being ignored. The quintet amounted to changing the order of the straight line-up by randomly moving characters to another place in the line-up. In another inconsistency with the film concept, after having had Hollywood style representational trees and painted backdrops, the three doors to Sarastro’s temple show up primitively painted in black on a white sheet and hung like the drape for “The Fantasticks,” strictly a theatrical (not cinematic) effect.

The Speaker looked like a doofy Shriner with Fez and polka dot tie. Andrew Kroes has a pleasant (if initially quavery) baritone but did not yet have the weight to make the most of the role. He was not helped in the eloquent Tamino-Speaker scene, when all sorts of scurrying went on behind him by other Shriners (the chorus) first by onesies, then twosies, then threesies like they were bad boys sneaking into a adult movie arcade.

The three ladies are Norma’s attendants. Individually they have talent but they never jelled as an ensemble. Raquel González settled into a sturdy, playful performance once past an unfocused opening; Summer Hassan had a pleasant presence in the middle harmonies; and Corrie Stallings strove to provide a solid foundation. But no amount of singing could salvage their being unimaginatively blocked , with even sure-fire bits like wanting to stay with the handsome Tamino falling short. To be fair, the Despina-magnet control effect of the comatose Tamino was kind of fun, a rare moment of wit in a slack evening.

The Sprits were beautifully sung by Emily Tweedy, Gillian Lynn Cotter and Fleur Barron. Granted, this is a fairly easy sing for adult women, but what we lost in boyish innocence, we gained in a well-modulated blend. If only they had not been held back by playing the parts waddling on their knees in baby costumes like Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan. I so enjoyed Claire de Sévigné some weeks ago in Peter Grimes that I was greatly anticipating her Queen. Curiously, the role seemed a weak match. There was an admirable (if cautious) accuracy on top, but her mid- to low-register was surprisingly under-powered. Ms. de Sévigné was smooth, suave, and elegant but her singing did not, could not seethe. Her entrance for “Oh, zittre nicht” provided one of costumer Mizrahi’s best achievements. As she entered from the house right bowels of the stage, and mounted the stairs to the bridge, she trailed a massively long, sparkling blue train. Unfortunately, the spectacular cape upstaged her singing.

Elizabeth Zharoff ‘s Pamina was a lovely role assumption, and her tone has just the right metal, but the reliable tone is at present a bit ‘instrumental’ and ‘precise’ with a somewhat tight vibrato. Still, Ms. Zharoff commanded the stage and fully understood how to communicate the various facets of the heroine. Moreover, her diction was excellent.

Matthew DiBattista acquitted himself well as Monastatos with a straight-forward, well-schooled tenor. Wonder why his Act Two aria (well-sung if a bit slow) got moved to Act One? As Sarastro, Matthew Anchel has impressive weighty, dark hued low notes that impress, although he needs to learn to bring the tone forward more as the lines ascend. Upper proclamations were sometimes ‘cloudy with a chance of strain.’ The Chorus, all in male Shriner’s-meet-Barnum-and-Bailey red attire with saddle shoes, sang with fire, precision and commitment (thanks, Robert Ainsley).

Move star handsome Sean Pannikar grounded the production as Tamino and was its shining center. True, his tone could sometimes turn a bit metallic, and occasionally a bit more vibrant warmth would have not been amiss. His subtle phrasings and modulated effects were best at ‘mezzo forte,’ and his very best work in the Speaker scene was upstaged as noted above. Still, Mr. Pannikar’s secure technique and wonderful musicality carried the evening.

The script was adapted, truncated, paraphrased and adapted, and not always to its benefit. Much of the dialogue delivery was flat, and lacked timing and forward motion. Luckily, the orchestra sounded particularly fine-tuned under Stephen Lord who inherited the last two shows from Jane Glover. This was a luminous reading (when we could concentrate on it) even if the odd phrase or two did lose synchronicity with the stage.

James Sohre


Casts and production information:

27

Gertrude Stein: Stephanie Blythe;
Alice B. Toklas: Elizabeth Futral;
Picasso/Fitzgerald: Theo Lebow; Leo Stein/Man Ray: Tobias Greenhalgh;
Hemingway/Matisse: Daniel Brevik; Conductor: Michael Christie;
Director: James Robinson;
Set Design: Allen Moyer;
Costume Design: James Schuette;
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Choreography: Seán Curran;
Video & Projection Design: Greg Emetaz;
Wig & Makeup Design: Tom Watson

The Elixir of Love

Adina: Susannah Biller; Nemorino: René Barbera; Belcore: Tim Mix;
Dr. Dulcamara: Patrick Carfizzi; Giannetta: Leela Subramaniam; Conductor: Stephen Lord;
Director: Jose Maria Condemi; Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz; Costume Coordinator: Amanda Seymour;
Choreographer: Seán Curran; Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski; Wig & Makeup Design: Tom Watson; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

The Dialogues of the Carmelites

Chevalier de la Force: Michael Porter; Marquis de la Force: Troy Cook; Blanche de la Force: Kelly Kaduce; Thierry: Theo Hoffman; Madame de Croissy: Meredith Arwady; Sister Constance: Ashley Emerson; Mother Marie: Daveda Karanas; M. Javelinot: Zachary Owen; Madame Lidoine: Christine Brewer; Mother Jeanne: Sofia Selowsky; Sister Mathilde: Stephanie Sanchez; Mother Gerald: Jennifer Panara; Sister Claire: Lacey Jo Benter; Sister Antoine: Rachel Sterrenberg; Sister Catherine: Leela Subramaniam; Sister Felicity: So Young Park; Sister Gertrude: Felicia Moore; Sister Alice: Hannah Hagerty; Sister Valentine: Eliza Johnson; Sister Anne: Elizabeth Sutphen; Sister Martha: Jessica Harika; Father Confessor: Kyle Erdos-Knapp; First Commissioner: Christopher Hutchinson; Second Commissioner: josh Quinn; First Officer: Elliott Hines; Jailer: Erik Van Heyningen; Conductor: Ward Stare; Director: Robin Guarino; Set Design: Andrew Lieberman; Costume Design: Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Wig and Make-up Design: Tom Watson; English Diction Specialist: Erie Mills

The Magic Flute

Sarastro: Matthew Anchel; Tamino: Sean Panikkar; Pamina: Elizabeth Zharoff; Queen of the Night: Claire de Sévigné; Papageno: Levi Hernandez; Monostatos: Matthew DiBattista; Spokesman of the Temple: Andrew Kroes; Papagena: Katrina Galka: 
Lady: Raquel González; Lady: Summer Hassan: Lady: Corrie Stallings; Baby Spirit: Emily Tweedy; Baby Spirit: Gillian Lynn Cotter; Baby Spirit: Fleur Barron; Priest: Spencer Viator; Armed Man: Frederick Ballentine; Armed Man: Zachary Owen; Conductor: Stephen Lord; 
Director: Isaac Mizrahi; Set and Costume Design: Isaac Mizrahi; Choreography: John Heginbotham; Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski; Wig & Makeup Design: Tom Watson; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

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