On Saturday the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) presented a concert performance of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory. Thomson’s score, which the composer described as “virtually a complete summary of my Protestant childhood in Missouri” is almost entirely made up of distinctly non-operatic American styles—hymns, dances, patriotic songs and the like composed simply from the diatonic major and often in triadic arpeggiation, and remarkably nostalgic (if a bit naïve), for the frontier life, picnics and country fairs of the American 19th century.
BMOP rendered the opera in an excellent fashion. Maestro Rose conducted a precise yet warm interpretation and balanced the minimal wind section against a stage-full of strings. Special mention goes to Mary Tokarski on accordion for an authenticity that avoided her instrument’s tendency for cliché. It was nearly always doubled by a harmonium (lent by Lee Eiseman) well-played by Kevin Galié
Gertrude Stein’s libretto for the opera, which in reality contains a congregation of innumerable saints in Four Acts, is less than a non-linear narrative; there is no apparent dramatic development. As a drama it is appropriately notorious for its non-sense (or “Stein-sense”) in that the details can at once be shocking, immature and irreverent or not—one can never be sure Excerpt: “If it were possible to kill fifty million Chinamen by pressing a button would it be done? Saint Theresa is not interested.” As poetry, Stein’s book is fantastic, erratic, delightfully delightful of fancy fuss, and frustrating for an awe full filled hour and a half. Writing for the Musical Times in 1934, musicologist Arthur Mendel described the opera and the relationship between the music and text as: “Much has been made of Virgil Thomson’s skill at prosody, and undoubtedly the prosody in Four Saints in Three Acts is good. But where neither the words nor the music need to make sense, good prosody should be easy.”
However, the singers that Rose assembled were spectacular. They brought just the right balance of cloy sincerity and authoritative posturing that led me to wonder if I just wasn’t in on the joke. In particular, the Compère (Lynn Torgove, mezzo) and Commère (Tom McNichols, bass) were a delightful pair that seemed to play the masters of the ceremony with astonishing gravitas and clear diction. It is said that Stein and Thomson chose the original cast because of their “clear English speech,” and Nichols and Torgove demonstrated why; good diction becomes all the more important when the words themselves make no sense.
And yet, Aaron Engebreth (baritone) dressed in a saintly white, rendered St. Ignatius’s famous third act aria “Pigeons on the Grass, Alas” with finesse, bringing forth the clarity of Thomson’s line. The two St. Thereses also deserve mention, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco (mezzo) and Sarah Pelletier (soprano) sang with a combination of dry humor and sentimentality-breeding innocence. Finally, the two choruses were well blended and managed to fill the room whether their dynamic was charmingly intimate or strikingly loud.
In all, the production was wonderful, and at the end a large percentage of the audience stood for the performers. However, for me, this opera represents a missed opportunity. Considering the original 1934 cast was entirely African-American, Stein herself lived as an outcast in Paris and Thomson began the project “hoping for something more involved with American history,” we might have been left with an interbellum patriotic work based on tolerance and inclusion. Instead we are left with a work of the insouciant avant-garde chaining a profound document of early 20th Century Americana to a convoluted story of unrelated saints told in gibberish.
Saturday’s production, supported by the Virgil Thomson foundation, is the first of a complete cycle of Thomson’s operas including his other collaboration with Stein, The Mother of Us All. Further, the foundation intends to release recordings of all of these productions, which, if you like the works, is pretty exciting news.
Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.