BMOP launches Thomson opera cycle with a bracing “Four Saints”

November 17, 2013 at 12:03 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed Virgil Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts” Saturday night at Jordan Hall.

Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts plays upon theatrical conventions, beginning with its title. Four sixteenth-century saints—St. Ignatius, St. Chavez, St. Settlement, and St. Teresa (split into two roles)—stand out from a sea of about twenty others. The singers explicitly cue the scenes, sometimes out of order, in each directionless act. And by the way, there are actually four of them.

A concert version of the unorthodox work nonetheless made for enjoyable theater Saturday night in Jordan Hall, where Gil Rose led the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in a lithe and colorful reading of Thomson’s most successful opera.

No strangers to Thomson’s music, BMOP has recorded the composer’s Five Songs from William Blake and Three Pictures for Orchestra. Saturday’s production, with support from the Virgil Thomson Foundation, marked the beginning of a long-range plan to perform and record each of the composer’s three operas.

Thomson and Gertrude Stein began working on Four Saints after meeting in Paris in 1926. The opera was an instant hit at its Hartford, Connecticut premiere eight years later, and it went on to a highly successful run on Broadway.

That is especially remarkable as the opera has no traditional plot. Images and phrases in Stein’s farcical libretto come together in unusual and colorful ways, weaving repeated words and their homophones into a fog of meaningless phrases. Take, for example, “Four Saints two and two have to have to.”

But when sung or read aloud, Stein’s verses seem to spin freely with rich counterpoint. And one can always appreciate the odd-ball, Monty Python-esque humor of the famous “Pigeons on the grass alas” and the Act II strain “How many Saints are in it? There are as many saints as there are saints in it.”

Thomson’s patchwork score of marches, waltzes, hymns, patriotic songs, and tango reflect the immediacy of the text, and its sing-song style captures effectively the flow of spoken English. Tempos shift abruptly, thin layers of winds and strings burst into blocks of orchestral sound.

On one hand, the music of Four Saints bears the imprint of early-twentieth-century Americana with strains of folk melody similar to Copland’s populist works of the 1930s and 40s. On the other, the score anticipated vernacular-flavored works as David Del Tredici’s Alice Symphony and Mikel Rouse’s talk-show opera Dennis Cleveland.

The BMOP orchestra and chorus performed splendidly. Gil Rose, throughout, conducted with deliberate gestures and clear vision of the score.

Joining these forces was a stellar cast of soloists. Bass Tom McNichols brought his booming voice and crystal-clear diction to the “narrating” role of Compère. Mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgrove, as Commère, his counterpart, answered with pure and clean tone. In her too-brief role as St. Settlement, Deborah Selig sang with delicate, ringing soprano. Mezzo Gigi Mitchell-Velasco and soprano Sarah Pelletier blended fluently and in their roles as St. Teresa. Their voices melded in a lovely Act I trio with Aaron Engebreth’s (St. Ignatius) velvety baritone. The standout was Charles Blandy, who brought his clarion tenor to the role of St. Chavez. His high notes soared effortlessly over the ensemble in his Act III solos.

The chorus, with energy, precise diction, and solid ensemble sound, deftly handled the opera’s sermon-like and tongue-twister phrases, a testament to the preparation done by chorus master Beth Willer.

Gil Rose will lead the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in world premieres by composers Elena Ruehr, Ken Ueno, and David Rakowski, with cellist Frances-Marie Uitti and pianist Amy Briggs, 8 p.m. January 17 at Jordan Hall. bmop.org; 781-324-0396.

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