Sunday, August 21, 2011

Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation

I was at opening night of this Gertrude Stein-inspired performance by Ensemble Parallèle. The 90 minute show featured Virgil Thomson's revised, 1 hour version of Four Saints in Three Acts. Using the Gertrude Stein text cut from this shortened version, composer Luciano Chessa created a companion piece that opened the show & led into Four Saints without a break. Mr. Chessa's work is in several distinct sections, each in a different style & all of it sounding like very serious music. The 1st part opens with a soulful muted trumpet solo. The singers whisper then gradually intone the text. Other sections include a waltz, a solo for loud baritone & percussion, & an evil duet in quarter tones for 2 sopranos. The score also employs electronic sounds, & at one point I thought I heard a balloon being popped.

The stage is in continual darkness. The cast, wearing black monks' robes & cowls that hide their faces, perform ritualistic actions at a deliberate pace. The backdrop was a slow-moving, black-&-white video of clouds & people dressed as angels. Video performance artist Kalup Linzy appeared on stage & on-screen as an angel in drag & sang tunelessly during a gospel number.

After a bizarre set change requiring assistance from the pit, everything turned into its opposite for Four Saints in Three Acts. The stage was white & bright, the music spontaneously tuneful & the action rapid & silly. All the props had wheels, so there was much spinning around of people on beds & chairs. Director Brian Staufenbiel added a scenario depicting St. Ignatius as a doctor. We see St. Ignatius managing an assisted suicide, performing an operation, being arrested & finally executed in the electric chair.

The busy cast of 12 were all strong singers & actors. Soprano Wendy Hillhouse sang robustly & gave winking meaning to everything she uttered. Baritone John Bischoff has a distinctive deep & open voice. Soprano Heidi Moss sang her high notes with security & portrayed Saint Teresa I with a demented serenity. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu moves comfortably on stage, & his large, velvety voice rolls out effortlessly.

This was my first exposure to Thomson's opera. It is cheerfully sing-song, folksy & consonant, & after 20 minutes I was tired of it. The older gentleman seated next to me got impatient much sooner. Even before the performance started, he snorted "Get on with it!" while Charles Ward of YBCA & Frank Smigiel of SFMOMA gave their introductory speeches.

§ Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation
An Ensemble Parallèle production
Nicole Paiement, Conductor
Brian Staufenbiel, Director

A Heavenly Act
Music by Luciano Chessa, libretto by Gertrude Stein
Featuring Kalup Linzy

Four Saints in Three Acts
Music by Virgil Thomson, libretto by Gertrude Stein

John Bischoff : Compère
Eugene Brancoveanu : St. Ignatius
Kristen Choi : St. Teresa II
Jason Detwiler : St. Plan
Berndan Hartnett : St. Virgil/St. Philip
Wendy Hillhouse : Commère
Maya Kherani : St. Settlement
J. Raymond Meyers : St. Stephen
Heidi Moss : St. Teresa I
Brooke Munoz : St. Cecilia
Jonathan Smucker : St. Chavez
Nicole Takesono : St. Sarah
Mike Harvey, Michael Strickland: Supernumeraries

Friday, August 19, 2011 • 8:00 PM
Novellus Theater at YBCA

§ Picture credits: Peanuts 12/5/1960; SFMOMA


Civic Center said...

While getting my metallic makeup applied, and listening to the audio feed backstage, I was saying the same thing as your elderly seatmate. "Shut up, get off the stage, and let the show speak for itself."

Sorry you weren't amused by the music. I used to feel the same way but hearing it for the last three weeks has changed my mind. It's simple AND complex and it takes a while to hear that mixture. And there are more earworms than "The Magic Flute," which is saying something.

Axel Feldheim said...

There was definitely too much talking before the show. Most superfluous was when the SF MOMA guy told us it was ok to laugh at Stein's nonsensical words. Most embarrassing was when the YBCA guy got the title of the opera wrong & was vociferously corrected by the audience.

My inability to connect to the music on 1st hearing says more about me than the opera. I certainly can't blame the quality of the singing or the preparation of the performance.