Twenty-seven Rue de Fleurus was the address of the Parisian home of Gertrude Stein, the protagonist of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s latest world premiere. Seeking to conceive a new opera for Stephanie Blythe, the company responded positively to the composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s suggestion of a work about the expatriate writer – a role that in the event persuasively accommodates the mezzo-soprano’s ample voice. Royce Vavrek’s libretto touches on Stein’s emergence as a writer, her companion Alice B. Toklas, her possibly collaborationist activity and, especially, the salons she held at No. 27 for painters and writers.
Given the opera’s time-frame, which spans the world wars, Gordon’s second world premiere this year (following A Coffin in Egypt with Frederica von Stade) might have drawn on musical idioms of the era, yet it rarely strays from Gordon’s own thoroughly tonal style. Especially adept in suggesting geniality and nostalgia, his is music that singers like to sing and audiences are happy to hear, but its emotional range is limited. The 90-minute opera is well paced dramatically and finely crafted in its use of recurring themes but needs more bite to ward off blandness. Vavrek’s text often mimics Stein’s idiosyncratic word repetition, yet set to music the result seems quite natural because text repetition is so inbred.
The salon scenes are engaging, but the opera is short on vivid theatrical moments, a point underscored by contrast when, in James Robinson’s resourceful staging, Ernest Hemingway shows up tugging a rhinoceros carcass while F. Scott Fitzgerald pulls a wagon loaded with liquor bottles. Allen Moyer’s set depicts Stein’s salon in patterned gray wallpaper and empty picture frames. James Schuette’s costumes are inspired by photographs, with Elizabeth Futral bearing an uncanny resemblance to the real Toklas.
The best moment comes with the delicate music following Stein’s death, as Futral sings in haunting pianissimo tones, cradling Stein’s head, in an encapsulation of the quiet love she had shown Stein as “wife” throughout. Stein is more domineering, a quality Blythe has no difficulty communicating, although her plush voice sometimes sounds harsh. Essential contributions also come from the superb male trio of Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh and Daniel Brevik in a variety of roles, including Lebow as Picasso, who painted a famous portrait of Stein. The conductor Michael Christie and members of the Saint Louis Symphony ably assist in giving 27 a strong launch.