"I Love You, Alice B. Toklas," the title song of Peter Sellers' 1968 screwball cinematic ode to hash brownies, begins "and so does Gertrude Stein." And, now, so does the vocally robust mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.
Ricky Ian Gordon's "Twenty-Seven," commissioned by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, has an irresistible basis: an opera about Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, written for Blythe and another important American singer, the powerfully dramatic soprano Elizabeth Futral. The setting is 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein's famed Paris salon in the first half of the 20th century. Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, Hemingway and Fitzgerald are part of the parade.
Now in its 39th season, Opera Theatre, which really operates in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, functions as a festival opera, with this year four productions running in repertory at the Loretto-Hilton Center from late May through June. The theater, on the campus of Webster University, is intimate, seating slightly fewer than 1,000 and without a proscenium. The pit is deep. The acoustical impact is immediate. All operas are sung in English. There is a sense of occasion.
And there is, every season, at least one and usually two novelties, including a new or recent opera. This is the company that in the last decade has given important attention to the then-neglected John Adams' "Nixon and China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer," and John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles," as well as presented the U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin's "Alice."
As such, operatic news regularly travels from the Midwest to Southern California. Long Beach Opera presented the St. Louis production of "Klinghoffer" this season; San Diego Opera takes on its "Nixon" next season, both directed by Opera Theatre's artistic director, James Robinson. Coincidentally, new productions of "Alice" and "Ghosts" will finally reach L.A. in February, respectively at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera. "Klinghoffer" and "Alice" happen to be L.A. Opera commissions the company never mounted.
Besides "Twenty-Seven," directed by Robinson, Opera Theatre's other striking offering this year is an eye-popping production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," designed and directed by fashion star Isaac Mizrahi. In a short stay in St. Louis, I saw the two productions on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. Each is a treat, but a bit like the Ted Drewes stand, where long lines of Cardinals fans line up for delectable frozen custard tough as mortar, on the sugary side.
Gordon may have yet to live up to the movingly grand scale of his thus far most imposing and important work, "The Grapes of Wrath," premiered by the Minnesota Opera in 2007 — he is working these days on a smaller scale, such as "A Coffin in Egypt," seen at the Wallis in Beverly Hills earlier this spring — but he is a fine composer of art songs and has an appealing way of writing for special voices.
Those are the strongest qualities in "Twenty-Seven." Gertrude and Alice could be any two devoted partners, with Alice the faithful, loving wife of a genius. When Blythe and Futral sing together, their voices intertwine comfortably. Their love is a refuge.
In "Twenty-Seven," the refuge is from the circus-like atmosphere of Stein's salon, where those other geniuses keep popping up, painting and writing and carrying on. Between them, Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh and Daniel Brevik are responsible for more than a dozen characters, men and women, plus providing a considerable amount of acrobatic movement (the choreographer is Seán Curran).
The opera proceeds in a prologue and five acts and tries to get in a little bit of everything in 90 minutes. Stein sits for Picasso. She hosts Matisse and his wife. She assists doughboys in World War I. She contends with Ernest (who enters dragging a dead rhinoceros) and insecure Scotty. Alice knits and frets and is a good listener.
But when it comes to Stein there is not quite enough there there. Only in a beautiful final aria, her defense of charges of collaborating with the Vichy French during World War II, do we get a sense of the fragility Stein's writing and persona did a good job of disguising.
But Stein was far more than a maternal figure to a gaggle of macho artists; she was a mother of Modernism. In his orchestral writing (played by the St. Louis Symphony and conducted by Michael Christie), Gordon evokes something of early 20th century French music in his score, without trying to sound like Erik Satie or Virgil Thomson, the composers closest to Stein. Vocally, he domesticates her, rather than confronting her progressiveness.
Mizrahi's "Flute" relies on an old concept. He sets the opera on a Hollywood back lot in the 1950s. Tamino might be Gene Kelly. The Queen of the Night is a star in an elegant robe haughtily overseeing the action. The three spirits are kiddies from "The Band Wagon." Mozart's Masonic rites are Hollywood Masons in red jackets and saddle shoes. There are a million colors and delightful visual details to soak up.
The dance, choreographed by John Heginbotham, adds all kinds of other allusions and illusions, from ballet to Astaire. There is a sense of merriment and childlike amazement. Children in the audience Wednesday afternoon responded with infectious glee.
This "Flute" may not go deep, but Mizrahi's instincts are never less than musical, and his sense of comedy never less than amusing. The cast includes Claire de Sévigné as a striking Queen of the Night, Sean Panikkar as a dashing Tamino, Elizabeth Zharoff as a delicate Pamina, Matthew DiBattista as an unusually suave Monostatos, Levi Hernandez as a wisecracking Papageno and Matthew Anchel as a disappointing Sarastro. Jane Glover's conducting is more restrained than anything onstage.
The other two Opera Theatre productions are Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" and Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love." The season runs through June 29.