A surprising number of people filled the house, the Fletcher Recital Hall, at East Carolina University for ECU Opera Theater's production of Four Saints in Three Acts. The lady who sat next to me asked me if I were family or faculty; her son had a major role, qualifying her as family. But there were many more people there than those two categories. Before tonight I would not have thought of this Gertrude Stein/Vigil Thompson work as a barn burning, door crashing must-see. But in the words of the Monkees, I'm a believer!
The libretto, written by Stein for Thomson, comes over the footlights as gibberish. The reader may sample it, or indeed read the whole thing here. It is not in any way a religious piece, but a celebration of the bohemian life in which Thomson and Stein were immersed. It's very much in the style of the rest of Stein's poetry.
Of course gibberish can well be said about many opera libretti, from Handel onward, but Thomson's vigorous composition and largely harmonious music makes Four Saints easy to sit through. Everyone's diction was excellent, not that it mattered.
What made this performance so splendid was the completely integrated talents of everyone involved. The stage director was ECU faculty member John Kramar. He was surrounded by a constellation of equal talent.
In line with every other aspect, Four Saints in Three Acts was given as one continuous performance. The program suggested it would be 100 minutes, but the company had steam up and finished in about 90 minutes. There was no sense of rushing, though; the tempo seemed perfect throughout. The continuous performance called for one set.
But what a set! In homage to the original performance, which is said to have featured cellophane scenery, the orchestra was placed at the back of the stage behind a floor-to-ceiling screen of red, blue, silver, and gold tinsel, which was constantly in motion. In the center of this screen there was an archway embellished with flowers and greenery and inflated parrots, flamingos, and seahorses. To either side were inflated palm trees. The stage was flanked upstage by two columns upholding inflated gold lions of Judah or some such; between them were risers for the two choruses, decorated with gauze and the long balloons used to make animal figures. In front of the risers were three plain wooden benches; the actors moved them around during the play. The two narrators had podiums right and left. This very effective design was by Matthew Scully.
The brilliantly colored costumes, by Jeffery Phipps, were as outrageously effective as the music. The cast of ten women and eighteen men were about half in mock ecclesiastical garb, no two alike, chasubles, wimples, monks' robes, cassocks of various cut, and over-the top evening wear: a gray tail-coat, evening dresses, black suits with chalk stripes, and flapper dresses with yards of long fringe.
Thomson's peppy music and extensive use of two choruses make the choruses as important as the soloists. The choruses were always on stage and their parts are almost completely intertwined with the soloists. The blocking was completely choreographic which meant that the stage was a continuous swirl of color.
The solo singers were appropriately operatic, always audible without ever being forced. They were all professional and superb! The two choruses, singing almost all the time, were well in tune and precise, especially singing as they were with minimal direction. Eric Stellrecht prepared the chorus.
The large orchestra – piano, harmonium, violin, flute, clarinet,oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn, trombone, and two percussionists – was also superbly smooth. There were no obvious flubs, they were in tune and rhythmically together; in spite of the somewhat Salvation-Army-band of some of Thomson's score, they never sounded like a praise band in the bad part of town. The conductor was James Franklin.
Every aspect of this performance was perfectly meshed with the others. It was a superb performance. There are two more chances to see this: Monday and Tuesday, October 24 and 25. If you can get there, it's well worth your time; don't miss it!