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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 15, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 20
Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso meet onstage in MOR opera premiere
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Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso meet onstage in MOR opera premiere

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

MUSIC OF REMEMBRANCE
AFTER LIFE
NORDSTROM RECITAL HALL
BENAROYA HALL
May 11


Music of Remembrance (MOR) concerts are always worth attending. They invariably offer top-notch performances of an astonishing variety of musical works - particularly astonishing when you consider that this series, now ending its seventeenth season, focuses exclusively on music by Holocaust-era composers and new music inspired by the Holocaust.

The big excitement on May 11 was the world premiere of a one-act opera, After Life, which imagines a posthumous encounter between Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. MOR Artistic Director Mina Miller commissioned composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason to write the opera after she attended two Stein exhibits in San Francisco and came away with questions about Stein and Picasso's long, complicated friendship.

As directed by Erich Parce, with a superb chamber ensemble conducted by Stilian Kirov, this intriguing concept became a compelling hour of musical theater. The piece begins with Stein (mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook) emerging groggily from behind Picasso's famous portrait of her. She works her way back to consciousness through musical wordplay, in an extended aria showcasing Stein's tremendous ego - at one point she grabs a magazine off her desk and sings, 'I was on the cover of Time. I!' - and her longing to be reunited with Alice Toklas, whom she calls 'Baby Precious' in the opera, as she did in life.

To Stein's dismay, the person who shows up is Picasso, not Toklas. Picasso (baritone Robert Orth, in a tour de force of singing and acting), expecting to be greeted by one of his many women lovers, is equally disappointed. The duet that ensues is a battle of wills. Picasso struts around, claiming that he is 'El toro! El rey!' Stein demands to know what impact her writing has had on the world since her death. She invokes 'the cover of Time' so frequently that the refrain becomes sad rather than comical: time has covered some of her glory.

The third character, who enters from the back of the theater, singing her way through the audience, is a young woman (soprano Ava Pine, in a beautiful, moving performance) who once sold a rose to Stein and Toklas, and who died during the Holocaust. This character is the heart of the opera. Her dignified humility challenges the arrogance of Stein and Picasso and forces them to face their shortcomings as human beings.

Cipullo gave all three singers difficult parts to sing, with many jumps between low and high notes, long lines without opportunities to breathe, and passages that had to be sung softly at the very top of the singer's register. All three carried off their performances with great skill. Orth and Pines were especially effective in their roles. Cook's Stein never quite became a three-dimensional character, but I think that was mostly the fault of Mason, whose libretto doesn't develop Stein as fully as the two other characters.

Cipullo's score offered some lovely melodies and interestingly harsh contrasting textures. He used a couple of techniques once too often for dramatic effect: strumming the piano strings to indicate a change of mood, and ending a sung refrain on a high, soft note. Kudos to all the musicians, who made the most of the score: Zart Dombourian-Eby on flute, Laura DeLuca on clarinet, Mikhail Shmidt on violin, Walter Gray on cello, and Craig Sheppard on piano.

I hope MOR will reprise After Life in a future season. It deserves to be seen and heard more than once.

The concert began with several short chamber works focused on the Paris of Stein and Picasso's time. DeLuca, Shmidt, and Mark Salman had a lot of fun with Darius Milhaud's jazzy 'Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano.' The song 'Le Tsigane dans la Lune,' by Dutch composer Rosy Wertheim, struck me as musically inert and didn't show off Pine's voice to advantage, although it gave the excellent Shmidt a chance to shine. 'Nuit Calme,' a meditation for cello and piano by another Dutch composer, Henriette Bosmans, was performed ably and expressively by Gray and Miller. (Program notes indicate that Bosmans wrote extensively for cello because of her relationship with cellist Frieda Belinfante.) Paul Bowles' 'Music for a Farce' featured gorgeous trumpet solos by David Gordon, and splendid performances by DeLuca, Salman, and percussionist Matthew Kocmieroski.

MOR will return in the fall with the world premiere of a commissioned dance work: La Revue de Cuisine, choreographed by Olivier Wever and performed by Ensemble Whim W'him. For more information, visit musicofremembrance.org.

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