Saints and the Surreal

Virgil Thomson's opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, is a very strange work, to say the least.

First of all, it has no story line in the traditional sense. It can most accurately be described as a series of tableaux. Moreover, the words of the opera don't make a great deal of sense. Even its title is a bit deceiving. There are actually some 16 saints mentioned in the opera, and the work is divided into four acts.

Thomson's musical score is pleasant enough. At times it's even beautiful. But the music has a certain sameness about it that becomes somewhat tiresome after about 20 or 30 minutes.

Consequently, for the work to be entertaining from start to finish, it should be visually interesting. Unfortunately, Houston Grand Opera's new production of Four Saints in Three Acts, which premiered last Friday, falls short in this category.

First, though, a word about the opera's libretto, composed by Gertrude Stein in the 1920s, the age of Dadaism and Surrealism. In composing the text, Stein chose words as much for their sound as their meaning. Maurice Grosser, who in 1933 first produced the opera, advised, "One should not try to interpret too literally the words of this opera, nor should one fall into the opposite error that they mean nothing at all. On the contrary, they mean many things at once E. Any practicable interpretation of the text is legitimate."

HGO has chosen not to use surtitles this time around, probably because the singing is in English. That doesn't guarantee, though, that the words are understandable. If surtitles had been used, it would have at least satisfied the audience's curiosity as to what the characters were saying.

At times, a smattering of laughter rose from the crowd as portions of the dialogue could be clearly heard. For the curious, here's an excerpt from the opera's text: "Could they grow and tell it so if it was left to be to go to go to see to see to saw to saw to build to place to come to rest to hand to couple to name to rectify to do."

Of course, an opera needn't have a coherent libretto to be rewarding. If the music is outstanding, who cares about the text? As Voltaire put it, "Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung."

And Thomson's music can be quite enchanting. It represents a variety of influences, ranging from Spanish dance numbers to baroque cantatas. But the primary theme is Americana. Excerpts from American marches, hymns, waltzes, patriotic songs and even nursery rhymes can be heard.

The opera is composed primarily of ensemble numbers, with very few arias in the traditional sense. At the premiere, the singing was, for the most part, excellent. As is usual with an HGO production, the choral singing was generally outstanding.

Among the individual artists who turned in noteworthy performances were baritone Sanford Sylvan as St. Ignatius; mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson as Commere and bass Wilbur Pauley as Compere. Soprano Ashley Putnam as St. Theresa 1, in particular, displayed a lovely voice, and Sylvan and the men's chorus offered a fine rendition of the opera's most famous number, "Pigeons on the grass alas," in the third act.

HGO brought in Waco native Robert Wilson, a prominent figure in avant-garde theater, to direct this work. In 1992, HGO hired Wilson to stage Wagner's Parsifal, which can be numbingly boring; under Wilson's direction, it was one of the more exciting operas of recent years. Unfortunately, Wilson doesn't duplicate his earlier triumph in Four Saints.

The sets are minimal. Props are brought in at various points to convey scene changes, but for the bulk of the performance the staging remains virtually the same. And when prop changes are made, they tend to be barely noticeable. There are some eye-catching exceptions -- such as when cutout figures reminiscent of giraffe heads are suspended over the cast -- but they're too little too late to sustain interest.

So is Four Saints to be avoided? Not at all. It's not one of those notoriously dissident or minimalist works that send some operagoers scurrying for the exits. And the singing on the whole is lovely. Moreover, it is a short work, running only about 90 minutes.

In any case, HGO should be commended for staging the work. Four Saints is an interesting example of the unconventional opera that sprang up in the era between the world wars; it's rewarding to see such infrequently performed works, as opposed to a steady diet of the standard repertoire. HGO has been at the forefront in reviving such lesser-known, but eminently worthwhile, operas. One hopes it will continue, even if it does result in the occasional stumble.

Four Saints in Three Acts plays through February 7 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-

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Bruce Guynn