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An Opera Born and Reborn in the USA

Music review: The neglected 'Four Saints in Three Acts' gets a magical rendering at the Lincoln Center Festival.


NEW YORK — The magic begins before the music. As the audience settles and the orchestra tunes, white cutout sheep lying on the stage floor merrily pop up one at a time. A male figure stands motionless, strangely posed. The opera starts with a neon burst illuminating the triangle topping the frame of a small structure in the background.

These images don't have anything to do with Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts," and they don't last. They float away. Others take their place. Trees come and go, descending from the flies, as does an occasional moon or two. An acrobat in green with spiked hair walks across the stage on his hands. There is no pigeon for St. Ignatius' loopy vision of the Holy Ghost, "Pigeons on the grass alas," as Gertrude Stein has it in her libretto: A single tiny toy biplane serves. The necks of six large white giraffes bring childlike enchantment. The frame of a house, suspended in midair, bursts into flames at the end.

Opera history is made here in these small, sweet ways. But history also weighs heavily on this new production by Robert Wilson, which opened Thursday in New York State Theater as part of Lincoln Center Festival 96.


"Four Saints in Three Acts" is the first opera by Thomson and Stein, and it is the first American opera--the first opera written in a style that was innate to this country's music and didn't need a European model. It premiered on Broadway in 1934, was a hit, and still holds the record as the longest-running opera in Broadway history (the competition includes "Porgy and Bess," which premiered the following year on Broadway). It provides the example for non-narrative, non-psychological opera. More specifically, it was the predecessor for "Einstein on the Beach," the unconventional 1976 collaboration between Wilson and Philip Glass that initiated a renewal of opera as modern performance art.

Nonetheless, "Four Saints" is a neglected opera. The few productions it gets tend to be amateur. Europe is almost completely ignorant of the work. Wilson had wanted to direct a performance for decades but had no takers until this co-production with Houston Grand Opera (which gave the premiere last winter).

There is no sense to be made of "Four Saints." Stein, who said she loved the saints because they were Spanish, produces a delirious stream of inspired wordplay, which includes discussions about how many saints and acts there are (16 of the former, four of the latter). Thomson, who said he loved the saints because they were saints, set to music every word Stein wrote, including stage directions, in his direct (if ever so slightly fey) style that takes its cue from hymn tunes. The original production is legend. Maurice Grosser created an artificial scenario of a Sunday school pageant. John Houseman directed. Florine Stettheimer designed extraordinary sets of lace, feathers, gold paper, glass beads, tulle and acres of cellophane. The cast was all black, the singers drawn from Harlem choirs for their ability to project English text without operatic pretext.

Wilson uses no scenario, and he conceives the four acts in one uninterrupted 90-minute stream. Light plays an important role, the cyclorama glows rich colors that makes everything on stage seem miraculous, and Jennifer Tipton, who designed it with Wilson, is one of the stars of the show. The costumes by painter Francesco Clemente, who is working for the first time in the theater, modernize the robes of the saints of Baroque art. St. Ignatius wears a brilliant transparent robe decorated with bumblebees. The Commere and Compere, sort of musical masters of ceremonies, wear tuxedos--the male version divides down the middle, one half butler, the other half wolfman.

The disappointment in Houston was with the music. Dennis Russell Davies, who conducted, rushed. Some singers could be understood, but many couldn't. The audience was left in bemused bewilderment.

Corrections were made for Lincoln Center. Surtitles were added; intrusive though they are, they made the brilliance of Stein's text more evident. Although the performance took about the same amount of time in New York as in Houston, Davies has found a way to let the phrases breathe, and the New York City Opera Orchestra played more beautifully than normally.

It can be argued that Thomson's most important innovation was to remove opera singing from opera, in an effort to allow the word to take on a new brilliance. Baritone Sanford Sylvan (St. Ignatius) can do that better than just about anyone else these days, and every word he sang felt as if it were placed just so in the listener's lap. Bass Wilbur Pauley (Compere) and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson (Commere) were nearly as compelling.

Less ideal was soprano Ashley Putnam, who sang St. Theresa I (the saint is divided by Thomson and Stein between two singers, but the first is more important); she looked and sounded glamorous but her manner has become too grand for American speech. Putnam demonstrated why opera companies don't perform "Four Saints" more often--the opera asks them not to be what they are. But given the aggressively hip audience that filled State Theater Thursday, opera companies might now have motivation to try.

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