“Gertrude was wonderful to set to music because there was no temptation to illustrate the words,” Thomson, an American composer who was an expat in Paris along with Stein in the 1920s, once remarked of his chief collaborator. “For the most part you didn't know what it meant anyway, so you couldn't make it like birdie babbling by a brook or heavy, heavy hangs my heart.”
I'm not a music critic nor do I pretend to be but I confess that I was mostly underwhelmed.
Since the libretto was by Gertrude Stein, I didn't expect logic. In fact, one of Gertrude's charms is her lack of formal logic but one of her charms is the rhythm of her prose. Alas, for the most part, both rhythm and diction were lost in this production.
YBCA divided the presentation into two uneven acts, padded by (IMHO) a mumbling, boring, dreary prelude by Italian composer Luciano Chessa (who teaches at the SF Conservatory). The curtain opened on a black stage, with a chorus of singers dressed as monks in black who proceeded to chant in unintelligible whispers for what seemed an eternity. Even the presence of a supposed notable multi-media performance artist (Kalup Linzy) didn't enliven the gloom.
His facial features don't improve when blown up 40 feet on a back screen projection and the slow motion clouds were lovely but quickly got tedious. My favorite part of that part of the production was when the shinny floor covering slithered down off the stage across the front of the proscenium.
If nothing else, that proves that YBCA has a state-of-the-art theater mechanics.
The "Gertrude" part of the production was much more lively and interesting, although still marred by sloppy diction. The only exception was Eugene Brancoveanu (Saint Ignatius) whose "solo" of "Pigeons in the grass, alas" was the best part of the show as was his warm, thrilling baritone. Compère (John Bischoff) and Commère (Wendy Hillhouse) act as the Masters of Ceremonies had good comic timing and Ms Hillhouse, in particular, belted out her arias with feeling.
Nicole Paiement conducted with passion and the orchestra was flawless. Some of the stage business was funny - the tango segment was genuinely witty. But why clothe St. Ignatius in red and turn him into a surgeon and then, some sort of torture victim? Mr. Brancoveanu has a physique that can wear red but why mess with the original staging?
We had St. Therea wheeled around the stage in an open-four poster bed, St. Ignatius playing a surgeon and later, a torture victim. The ending, with St. Ignatius strapped to a torture chair, wrapped with cables while miming electric shock was not funny -
and that's a fact.
Mike Strickland (one of the bad cops in black in the production): http://sfciviccenter.blogspot.com/2011/08/critics-on-grass-alas.html
Josh Korman's review: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/08/22/DDVH1KQBRK.DTL#ixzz1VoVOoCdS
Most astute and thorough commentary (found via SF Mike)
Patrick Vaz: The idea of continuing the avant-garde performance tradition association with 4 Saints is not in itself a bad one, but they would have been better off leaving 4 Saints alone..(read the whole thing as it's fantastic).