Review: Pittsburgh Opera production about Gertrude Stein a winner

Alice Toklas (Adelaide Boedecker), left) and Gertrude Stein (Laurel Semerdjian) see how Pablo Picasso (Adam Bonanni) measures up in Pittsburgh Opera's '27.'
Alice Toklas (Adelaide Boedecker), left) and Gertrude Stein (Laurel Semerdjian) see how Pablo Picasso (Adam Bonanni) measures up in Pittsburgh Opera's '27.'
Photo by David Bachman
| Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, 12:45 p.m.

Pittsburgh Opera unfurled a winning new production of Ricky Ian Gordon's opera “27” on Feb. 20 at its headquarters in the upper Strip District.

The title refers to the street address, 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, where American writer Gertrude Stein lived most of her life and held famous weekly salons that attracted many of the most famous artists of her time. Although some of those artists appear in the opera, which takes place entirely in her salon, “27” is firmly focused on Stein as seen through the eyes of her wife, Alice B. Toklas.

Gordon's music is beautifully written for the voices, tuneful according to the spirit of the people it brings to life, and maintains an engagingly consistent flow.

The opera was first performed less than two years ago by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which commissioned it. The new production in the black box theater at the opera's headquarters was particularly handsome. Set designer Julia Noulin-Merat filled the walls with original and aptly stylish paintings and created an appealingly abstract and colorful design for the floor.

Toklas is alone, knitting and remembering her years with Stein, as the opera begins. Soprano Adelaide Boedecker set the tone for the excellence of Pittsburgh Opera's cast.

Throughout the opera, Boedecker negotiated her part's high tessitura with flair and ample power, and offered more dulcet tones for her character's mainly gentle interpersonal manner.

It doesn't take long before her knitting conjures up the golden years before World War I, when Stein and her brother, Leo, show ahead-of-the-curve taste by purchasing art from Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who appear in Act 1, and many others who would later be recognized as geniuses.

Three large and empty picture frames, which are filled with various singing characters during the course of the opera, emphasize that Stein was a collector — as she sings it, an American in Paris collecting Europeans. Although it's easy to imagine an opera about Stein's salon featuring stimulating thoughts from the great artists who visit, in “27” we see the more ordinary aspects of their personalities, such as insecurity, need for attention and jealousy. Royce Vavrick's libretto is skillfully crafted and not too wordy.

Laurel Semerdjian scored a triumph as Gertrude Stein. Mezzo-sopranos rarely get to dominate an opera, but she made the most of Gordon's nuanced portrait of the central character. Semerdjian's velvety lower register was matched in tonal appeal and strength throughout her role's wide range.

Three men each played multiple roles during the opera. Tenor Adam Bonanni offered cleanly differentiated characterizations as Picasso in Act 1 and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Act 3. He played soldiers in Act 2, about World War I, and Act 4, about World War II.

Matthew Scollin had the more dissatisfied artists, Matisse and Ernest Hemingway. Scollin's Hemingway aria, calling out Stein about her egotism and other pretensions, was a tour de force of venting expressed with a powerful and resonant voice.

Brian Vu was a potent figure as Leo Stein, including bringing some dignity to the scene where he and his sister part ways forever.

The three men may have had their most fun in drag playing three women singing about hats. Nevertheless, in an opera that feels a little too long, this number is a dramatic detour.

The opera ends with Toklas alone and the great collection of paintings being shipped to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. She's visited by Picasso, who gives her another portrait of Stein.

Mark Trawka conducted a smoothly assured and well-detailed account of the opera, which was performed in a version for two pianos rather than the 39-piece chamber orchestra heard at the St. Louis premiere. James Lesniak and Karen Jeng were the piano team that played with such consummate artistry that one didn't miss the larger ensemble.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “27” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26, and 2 p.m. Feb. 28 at Pittsburgh Opera headquarters, 2425 Liberty Ave., Upper Strip District. Admission is $40 to $42. Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org.

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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