Like almost everyone else (I'd bet), I went to the recent Boston Modern Orchestra Project production of Four Saints in Three Acts out of pure curiosity. Could Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's freak success of the 30's really be the unique marriage of fetching music and confounding text that everyone claims it is?
Well - the conventional wisdom turned out to be quite right; in fact you might argue that the divide at the core of Four Saints is almost its raison d'être. Thomson's score is startlingly accessible, while Stein's libretto is hilariously obscurantist, in her patented nursery-rhyme mode (imagine endlessly repeating the first lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and you've roughly got the idea). Indeed, the gibberish grows so repetitive, while Thomson's music remains so buoyant (thus repeatedly saving Stein from self-sabotage), that a new note of unintentional comedy slowly creeps into the opera. Already meta, you could feel Four Saints growing meta-meta as it progressed; Gertrude Stein began to blend into Ben Stein, the singers sometimes struggled with their composure, and lines like "Last Act - which is a fact!" provoked open laughter in the audience.
You could argue, of course (as the professors do) that it's supposed to provoke laughter. The joke in Four Saints is on you, it's on Stein, it's on everybody - after all, there aren't even four saints in Four Saints, much less three acts; nothing is what it seems to be, and questions of basic epistemology are meant to loom like whimsical totems amid all the baby babble. Okay, that's a cute idea - but only for an hour, tops. Then I feel it's time to move on (particularly now that pop has taken over all these tropes and had its way with them).
To be fair, you can see how in its historical moment, Saints was a watershed, particularly given its (small, but real) popular success. Stein's verse, like so much of modernism, was an attempt to roll back the cultural norms that many in the avant-garde felt must have precipitated the madness of the Great War. What the West needed, the vanguard believed, was a cultural revolution to match its various political ones; as part of this ongoing project, Stein focused on beating language - and by extension, thought itself - back to its basics (no wonder, then, that her "saints" sound rather like her own artsy crowd in disguise).
Hence the libretto relentlessly interrogates (in sing-song) issues of arithmetic, syntax, and even physical locale; Stein's saintly congregation is "half indoors and half out of doors," and for a while are floating in "mountains if it were not Barcelona." "How many Saints are in it?" the self-conscious child who seems to have written the text wonders of one scene, then reflexively answers: "There are as many saints as there are saints in it." Okay - that's redundant, kiddo, but whatever.
Thomson meanwhile gets in on the act, and splits the opera's central figure, St. Teresa, into two musical halves, and two separate persons (here soprano Sarah Pelletier and mezzo Gigi Mitchell-Velasco) - but at least we get some lovely duets out of that; they warble in gorgeous counterpoint as various narrators puzzle over homophones and homonyms. Meanwhile the composer wickedly keeps his harmonies (and such gorgeous phrases as "When this you see/Remember me") well within the American folk and gospel traditions; indeed, Four Saints almost matches Copland for spiritual and harmonic simplicity.
There's a knowing intellectual twist to this, of course, just beneath the surface of the work: Thomson is basically hinting that his chosen musical style is as naïve as Stein's baby talk. (Ouch.) Likewise the first production of the opera had a now-troubling subtext; Four Saint in Three Acts debuted on Broadway with an all-black cast (and choreography by Frederick Ashton!), which now admits to, shall we say, more than one interpretation. Then it seemed to read as an unstated comparison between America's great, persecuted minority and the saints of our hypocritical hymnals; now, however, baby talk in the mouths of African-Americans reads as its own form of racism (and frankly, perhaps it did then, too - we should never forget that Gertrude Stein ended up a fascist sympathizer).
It's also worth pointing out, I think, that Stein and Thomson helped dig the rut that the avant-garde has now toiled in for several generations. If you doubt me, ponder that fifty years later, in Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson were still doing simple arithmetic, and attacking logic without suggesting any alternative to replace it. Thus Four Saints sometimes reads as a tedious template for decades of future "practice."
Still, I admit that Saints - and Stein - can be fun in small doses. The all-white version at BMOP tilted toward light snark (take out the civil rights element and you easily end up in Letterman and Leno territory), but this proved amusing, particularly in the delivery of bass Tom McNichols, who narrated most of the goings-on with wry irony. Pelletier and Mitchell-Velasco, as mentioned, blended beautifully, and nicely matched the rich baritone of Aaron Engebreth's St. Ignatius (who unfortunately looked a little spooked, for some reason). Alas, we didn't get to hear as much as we would have liked of Charles Blandy's soaring tenor (as St. Chavez) or Deborah Selig's glittering soprano (as St. Settlement, whoever that is), but we were pleased by Lynn Torgove's subtle (if sometimes soft) singing as the "Commère" (or "Godmother") who matched McNichols' bemused "Compère."
So the soloists were impeccable - the surprise was that the chorus, under the direction of Beth Willer, was equally strong (curiously, diction is as important as pitch to Stein's babble), and conductor Gil Rose drew a consistently passionate and luminous sound from his orchestra. Rose has some prior experience with Thomson and his generation - still, I was impressed once again by his versatility (he conducted a convincing version of Wagner's Rienzi just a few weeks ago). I feel we're unlikely to hear a stronger version of Four Saints in Three Acts anytime soon - although one thought does linger in my mind. What would be our reaction to this piece if Stein's text were as accessible as Thomson's music, if his melodies lifted straightforward, even quotidian, prose? Sometimes, I think, a little obscurantism can go a long way with the cognoscenti.