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'Four Saints in Three Acts': Lovely Nonsense

August 19, 2011

Gertrude Stein-mania continues with a new staging of her extremely untraditional opera

Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s 1928 opera, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” currently running through the end of the weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, makes so little sense that you have no choice but to surrender to its nonsense.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad night of theater. There’s pleasure and catharsis in the process of letting go and simply allowing the festive tunes and nursery rhyme-like words wash over you like bath-time in childhood.

“Gertrude was wonderful to set to music because there was no temptation to illustrate the words,” Thomson, an American composer who was an expat in Paris along with Stein in the 1920s, once remarked of his chief collaborator. “For the most part you didn't know what it meant anyway, so you couldn't make it like birdie babbling by a brook or heavy, heavy hangs my heart.”

Ensemble Parallèle, a San Francisco-based producer of avant-garde operas, captures much of the madness of the heavily abstract work – which, despite what the title says, features some 20 saints and spans four acts – with a playful, exquisitely sung and elegantly designed production. The opera is being produced in collaboration with YBCA and SFMOMA, which has extended hours for its popular exhibit of Stein’s art collection currently running through September 6.

The only thing that gets in the way of complete submission to the opera’s many charms is the creative team’s insistence on imposing heavy-handed visual imagery on a scenario that is better left inscrutable.

Packed with kitten-chasing-its-own-tail locutions like “St. Ignatius and more. St. Ignatius with as well. St. Ignatius need not be feared…,” Stein’s gibberish-laced text certainly posed a challenge for Thomson. He was forced to hang his music on its sounds and rhythms rather than its meaning. Stein didn’t even bother to assign parts in her libretto to individual singers, causing the composer to refer to her effort as “a quite impressive obscurity.”

Yet it would be disingenuous to label “Four Saints” as totally abstract. Underneath the folly of the wordplay, which Ensemble Parallèle’s unintimidated ensemble cast articulates with utmost clarity and a strong dose of humor, lies the vague contours of a thematic framework.

Over the course of the 50-minute work, a master and mistress of ceremonies (Compère and Commère) lead us through a series of tableaux in which the 16th century Spanish saints (Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila) consort with a coterie of saint colleagues in various monastic and garden settings. Stein and Thomson use the earthly struggles, deaths and transmogrifications of the beatified pair, as metaphors for the lives of artists.

When “Four Saints” was first performed in 1934, initially at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and then on Broadway where it enjoyed a very successful run, the work’s various abstractions must have seemed of little consequence in comparison to the revolutionary nature of the staging.

“Four Saints” was unlike any opera that American audiences had seen up to that point. Stein’s nonsensical words and the pastoral simplicity of Thomson’s music were just part of the modernist package. The fact that the opera featured a genre-defying all-black cast (“Porgy and Bess” wouldn’t appear until the following year) was enough to keep people talking about the import of “Four Saints” long after the performance ended.

As operagoers have grown accustomed to seeing non-white performers on stage in the ensuing decades, contemporary producers habitually look for other ways to get audiences thinking.

In the case of Ensemble Parallèle’s production, director and designer Brian Staufenbiel attempts to arrest modern sensibilities by inserting several strong scenic tableaux centering on the character of Saint Ignatius into the loose narrative structure. Imposingly played by the stately baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, the saint, dressed against type in satanic red, has an unusual career trajectory for a saint: he performs surgery on a prostrate dummy in an operating theater, is tried in court by his peers and ends up in the electric chair.

According to Staufenbiel’s short statement in the playbill, the mise-en-scene is meant to “explore some of society’s irrational views regarding life and death and the contradictions that surround murder and our concept of justice.”

But Brancoveanu sticks out so vividly against Staufenbiel’s plain white set brushed steel furnishings and most of the other performers on stage (who, with the exception of the gaudy, Commedia dell’Arte-outfitted Compère and Commère, are dressed in more subdued tones) that the search for meaning becomes distracting.

The visual imagery associated with Ignatius also overpowers Teresa’s place in the opera. The luminous soprano Heidi Moss paints a sympathetic portrait of the mystic, trussed up by her fellow saints as they persistently follow her about and surround her on every side, even pushing her about the stage on a giant four-poster bed. But Teresa’s flowing, lemon yellow dress can’t hold the eye while Ignatius’s crimson zoot suit roams the stage. And Staufenbiel doesn’t create as strong a symbolic narrative for the female protagonist as he does for the male one, making her fade into the background.

Overall, though, Ensemble Parallèle’s formidable creative team makes the action work. The stage is peopled with strong performers who can sing, act and dance – and draw out the silly side of the opera. The lusty bass-baritone John Bischoff as Compère and Maya Kherani, the warm-voiced and graceful soprano who plays Saint Settlement, give particularly engaging performances. Led by Nicole Paiement, the chamber orchestra plays Thomson’s folksy score with similar abandon, infusing the composer’s honky-tonk melodies with spirited lightness and precision.

Everyone involved in the production seems to revel in the opera’s cheerful strangeness. It’s a pity to ruin the fun by picking through the red robes and gibberish dialogue for meaning. As Thompson himself remarked, “The two things you never asked Gertrude, ever, were about her being a lesbian and what her writing meant.”



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