“But stories are only stories,” Gertrude Stein once put it as only she could, in other words: Who needs them? Certainly not, in Stein’s world, a modern opera!
She was writing, naturally, about “Four Saints in Three Acts,” that delectably inscrutable serving of sound and light, a 90-minute sashay down a key boulevard of operatic modernism, one that improbably connects interwar Paris with prewar Kansas City. Here is a piece that looks you in the eye and without the slightest upturn at the corners of its mouth declares: “How many saints can be and land be and sand be and on a high plateau there is no sand there is snow . . .” Or a bit more famously: “Pigeons on the grass alas”!
A young and ambitious Virgil Thomson took up Stein’s avant-garde libretto and fashioned for it a score full of grand hymnal resonance and French-tinted prairie lyricism. Both saints and pigeons made a welcome Jordan Hall showing on Saturday night, in a rare concert performance presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the baton of Gil Rose. For the occasion, Rose fielded a cast of singers ranging from capable to excellent, including Charles Blandy, Aaron Engebreth, Tom McNichols, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, Sarah Pelletier, Deborah Selig, and Lynn Torgove. The chorus (Beth Willer, chorus master) sang with zest and buoyancy.
Stein’s libretto does involve real saints as well as purely fanciful ones. We are told of a pageant, and a garden party, and a vision of the Holy Ghost. Don’t look for them too closely. Full of alliteration, repetition, and homonym play, Stein’s language is first and foremost hyper-conscious of its own sound; these are words dancing in mirrors.
They trip lightly at the edge of nonsense but rarely fall in. It is in fact the amazing precision of the verbal fog that keeps the ear engaged. And Thomson’s music, a tribute to the American heartland of his youth, keeps on assuring us that there is something important being said.
It’s this stylized distance between libretto and music that creates this score’s unique sense of air and space, one that staged productions typically fill with choreography. Saturday’s performance showed how well the piece also holds up without any staging. Rose’s conducting placed a premium on clarity and balance, and the singers’ fine diction underlined the deadpan hilarity of Thomson’s hyper-articulate, almost homiletic settings.
Saturday’s performers deserved, and received, a warmly appreciative audience response. “Four Saints” may not shock as it once did, but its influence has been palpable. Einstein certainly visited these saints before heading to the beach. And in our own verbose, text message-addled moment, the score’s union of verbal wit and tuneful sincerity still strikes a chord.