It’s a bit misleading to describe the evening as a performance of 4 Saints in 3 Acts; this was an “Opera Installation” (I’m only surprised that its art-museum origin didn’t result in its being called “The 4 Saints Project”) so what we actually had was an abbreviated version of 4 Saints, preceded by a new composition called A Heavenly Act, a setting by Luciano Chessa of parts of Stein’s text cut from the reduced Saints. The idea of continuing the avant-garde performance tradition association with 4 Saints is not in itself a bad one, but they would have been better off leaving 4 Saints alone – Ensemble Parallele’s performance being, as expected given their track record, of such quality that I wished they were performing the entire opera – and maybe commissioning a new setting of some of Stein’s other texts.
On Thursday we were allowed to go directly into the event we had paid for; last night, however, we had to start with not one but two (one for Yerba Buena and one for SFMOMA) pointless and boring speeches from museum functionaries. They blathered on and on about their “installations” and “projects” and “background” for the piece, all of which (and more) is already easily available on-line or in the program. Gentlemen, let me tell you about a wonderful invention called the Internet. Anyone who is interested in what your organizations are doing, based on their viewing of the performance you are delaying for your own ego-gratification, can look it up later on the Internet. If we’ve spent up to $85 on tickets, there’s a good chance we already know what we’re going to be seeing, and if we don’t, that’s a deliberate choice that should be respected.
These tedious speeches were not only exasperating. I think the one from the SFMOMA guy was actually destructive, since he announced at one point that it was “OK to laugh” (then he added, as a condescending afterthought, that it was “OK to cry” as well; thanks, but I really don’t need to be told what makes me laugh or cry), which a large portion of the audience took as official permission to regard the opera as just silliness and hijinks; no matter what the words and music and movement evoked of beauty or passion or melancholy delicate poetry, there was continuing inane laughter that had not been there Thursday night when we had no little speeches. (And even the comic parts of the opera are really more evocative of witty smiles than guffaws; this isn’t Deputy Dawg.) Since the newly created scenario for 4 Saints involved the mercy killing (of St Teresa 1 by St Ignatius), a major operation (St Ignatius as the doctor), a trial for the life of St Ignatius, and his execution in an electric chair (the silly old women behind me chortling constantly throughout), the laughter was a pretty clear indication that people weren’t open to what they were seeing, but to what they had been told they should see. Why is a curator of modern art trying to direct our responses anyway? Why not trust the work of art and trust the audience and let us have our own reactions and our own opinions?
I liked Chessa’s music even more on the second hearing, though I would have preferred to hear it when I wasn’t waiting for 4 Saints. His piece opens with mistier shadier slow undulations, which contrast nicely with Thomson’s crisper tunes, and he elegantly references Thomson’s music, and though it’s beautifully done (as if he were an architect incorporating echoes of an attached older building into a new one), the very fact of doing so means this work is not in the tradition of 4 Saints, which was (and, wonderfully, remains) bold and eccentric and original.
There is a video projection by Kalup Linzy, consisting mostly of clouds and gauzy angels in smoky black-and-white, which was all quite lovely but not at all original or challenging in the way of the original. Linzy is black, and the program connects his role in this production with the famous use of an all-black cast in the original 4 Saints, but audience expectations are no longer challenged by seeing black singers in an opera; this is a good thing for both art and society, but it’s another way in which this production does not – could not – generate the frisson of the original. In fact it’s difficult to think of a more universal symbol of The Lovely than soft-focus angels and clouds. Nothing wrong with that, but just another source of frustration when I’m waiting for 4 Saints.
A Heavenly Act is very dark, at least on stage; the music covers a wider spectrum. The chorus mostly wears black cowls, and the lighting is low. The music suddenly changes to a stylish waltz, which evoked a raffish but elegant hotel ballroom of the 1920s with potted palms; the waltz grows increasingly frantic and moves towards a gospel number, sung by Linzy with angel wings (and a microphone) and in dark robes of the sort of black that looks green, but unfortunately he doesn’t have the voice or presence to carry off a gospel number – you can hear in the music that it was meant to be an exuberant explosion, but you can’t hear it in the performance. (And, again, gospel numbers on stage are not only not novelties, they’ve become a bit of a Broadway cliché.)
Throughout the first act, the words are mostly unintelligible. Stein, careful guardian of her own genius, would not like this. And I don’t think Thomson would either; famously (or notoriously, since people now tend to find his attitude patronizing), he decided to use black singers because of the clarity and beauty of their elocution. The libretto of 4 Saints is one of Stein’s, uh, more deeply hermetic texts (which means you’ll either find it evocative and poetic, as I do, or incoherent gibberish; personally, I admire Stein for continuing to walk the far edge; her difficulties remain difficult, which is part of their point; they haven’t been glossed and smoothed into a standard reading), but – and this is part of Thomson’s genius – it really does make sense, certainly poetic and emotional sense, when it’s sung. The form and shape of the music help form and shape the words and their possible meanings and echoes (and they build, which is why it's problematic to perform only part of this opera). Things live on the stage in a way they don’t on the page (which is why theater, despite its inconveniences and never-ending problems, and stupid giggling audiences, lasts).
Surtitles were not used for either part. I think this is a defensible idea for several reasons: the lack of surtitles has the effect of both forcing you to pay closer attention to the words and relieving you from needing to follow the libretto word by word. (I realize these two effects sound contradictory, but the dual effect is true; and if you dislike paradox and obscurity, 4 Saints is not the opera for you.) The opera is a balancing act between words and music and they need to join in performance; surtitles can emphasize the words in a way that obscures the emotional clarity provided by music and action (as when you buy a used book and any underlined or highlighted words jump out at you, even if you have no idea why they were underlined or highlighted).
As I said, I would have enjoyed A Heavenly Act on its own; as it was, I found it much too long (almost 40 minutes of a 90-minute performance), since I was eager for 4 Saints. I would happily buy a ticket if someone wanted to do a similar “installation” to one of the over-produced staples of the repertory, but 4 Saints is done so rarely that the evening led to a sense of frustration rather than adventure. The original is itself only around 90 minutes, and performing the whole thing doesn’t require anything that isn’t also needed for the short version (which, by the way, was never intended as a substitute performing version or final revision, no matter what SFMOMA is implying; Thomson made a short version, based on the hour he was given for a radio broadcast, and a record executive told him he would record that hour; Thomson refers to the recording in a letter to Alice B Toklas after Stein's death as "excerpts" of the opera).
As previously noted, 4 Saints is one of my all-time favorite operas, and I have never had the chance to see a full-length production; given that, my frustration with this evening was maybe to be expected, but it was a bit of a perverse tease to sell me a ticket for 4 Saints and then spend so much time on something which, while quite lovely, is not 4 Saints.
The overall excellence of Ensemble Parallele’s performance added to the frustration (especially since I felt on Thursday night that a few moments, particularly in the beginning, would have benefited from some of the rehearsal time that was no doubt spent on A Heavenly Act; there were some glitches on Saturday but on the whole the performance seemed more confident, though I shouldn't leave the impression that either night was overall anything but superb). I’ve sketched out their new scenario above, and director Brian Staufenbiel did a wonderful job staging the opera, using the words and music as the key to the action, so that sometimes it all made excellent (and even surprising and new) sense, and other times it created a wonderful disjunction between sense and scene (as in the trial, when the arbitrary-seeming phrases made a satirical point about the workings of earthly justice versus the higher morality of St Ignatius’s actions). There are elegant and witty dances (choreography by Michael Mohammed) when the music calls for them.
The set is also elegant and witty, with a bed, tables, and some chairs, all in white and on wheels, with touches of silver (as in the silver masks that line the top part of the bed, where a canopy would hang, which echo the silver faces of the white-clad cast). There are some touches of yellow and pale blue; St Teresa 1 is all in buttery yellow, and St Ignatius in brilliant red. (Set design by Staufenbiel and costumes by Christine Cook.) As noted, the rest of the cast is in white, except for the non-singing supernumaries, who are silver-faced policemen (click here for photos and a backstage report from evil supernumary SFMike), and the Compere and Commere (respectively John Bischoff and Wendy Hillhouse), who are in grand and slightly tatty Napoleonic finery, a witty reference to the Parisian milieu of Stein and Thomson.
Nicole Paiement, conductor and artistic director of Ensemble Parallele, had a wonderful touch with the music; hearing it after being so used to the recording was like seeing a familiar fresco cleaned and restored to its original fresh brilliance of color. The cast (many of them still students at, or newly graduated from, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music) was strong throughout. I particularly liked the purity of Heidi Moss’s St Teresa 1 and Kristen Choi’s St Teresa 2; Choi seemed to connect directly to the emotional truth and lyric beauty of each of her lines. The St Ignatius of Eugene Brancoveanu dominated the proceedings with his flowing baritone, large and deep; he was particularly fine – vibrant and sensitive and pointed – in Pigeons on the grass, alas, which is the Nessun Dorma of avant-garde opera.
What was there was all so good! Please, why not do the whole thing?