The Pittsburgh premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris memorably evokes some important 20th-century artists and their times.
This Pittsburgh Opera
Second Stage production — a series typically reserved for smaller-scale contemporary works — sets up in the troupe’s headquarters, in the Strip District. The versatile space is vividly done up like Stein’s famed artists’ salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
With just five performers accompanied by two pianists, the feel of this 100-minute show is intimate. That’s appropriate, as Gordon’s score and Royce Vavrek’s libretto is less an attempt to recreate the grand scale of its time period – from about 1905 to Stein’s death, in 1946 – than to explore Gertrude’s famed relationship with Toklas, her life-long partner. So it’s as much about Alice’s encouragement of Gertrude as it is about Gertrude’s own well-documented support for, say, Picasso and his art.
Justly, then, a highlight of 27
is Alice’s gorgeous song likening Gertrude’s genius to bells. As Alice, soprano Adelaide Boedecker is in fine voice, just like the other four cast members, all five of them Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists. Adam Bonanni, Brian Vu and Matthew Scollin alternate their way through a variety of salon visitors over the decades, including Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matisse, Man Ray, Leo Stein and various soldiers from two world wars.
Still, as Gertrude, Laurel Semerdjian nearly steals the show with her rich, warm mezzo-soprano voice. (Credit Gordon here, too: as opera legend Mildred Miller
was overheard to say after Saturday’s show, “Finally someone’s writing for mezzos!”)
, Gordon’s melodies for the sung dialogue are more sophisticated than they are catchy in pop terms. Still, you might just go home humming the lilting refrain that runs, “the genius is in at 27 rue de Fleurus.” The lyrics play frequently with Stein’s literary style and her fascination with repetition: “Gertrude Stein is safe, is safe, is safe,” goes one refrain.
Other highlights include a burlesque of the parade of shallow wives and mistresses whom Alice is tasked with entertaining while Gertrude consorts with the artists themselves, and Scollin’s angry aria as Hemingway when he rejects Stein’s authority; the song's refrain is a barked “Bullshit!” It’s a decidedly contrary take on Stein’s obsession with the notion of “genius,” and the role she feels she can play in creating it in her more willing proteges.
The show (which premiered in 2014, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis) is also notable for candidly addressing Stein’s collaborationist activities during World War II, when she translated speeches for the Vichy government, though 27 does put this in the context of her need to survive as a lesbian and a Jew in Nazi-occupied Paris.
, by the way, has two tangential Pittsburgh ties: Stein was born in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh’s North Side) in 1874; and Gordon studied at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1970s.
Three performances of 27
remain, beginning with tonight’s, at 7 p.m. The final showings are 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sun., Feb. 28.
Tickets are $42 and are available here
Pittsburgh Opera is located at 2425 Liberty Ave.