Four Saints in Four Acts- yes, four

Florine Stettheimer’s set for Act I of the 1934 production of Four Saints in Three Acts; Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven; photo: Harold Swahn.

SFMOMA and YBCA have teamed up with Ensemble Parallèle, Luciano Chessa and Kalup Linzy to present  Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, which began a four performance run last night in the Novellus Theater. The "Installation" part refers to "A Heavenly Act," created by Chessa and Linzy, which precedes the Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein opera  Four Saints in Three Acts (not an installation).  For the most part the first act doesn't add anything to the Three which follow it.

"A Heavenly Act" features Chessa re-working Thompson's music and Stein's lyrics, cut from an later revision of the opera by Thompson sometime in the fifties, with Linzy performing multiple duties while deliberately out-of-focus seraphim are projected behind the stage. It's visually arresting for a moment, then becomes a bit tedious, though there's a gospel sequence that pulls everything together brilliantly, if only for one segment of the whole.

When it ends, the lights come up halfway, a neat bit of staging resembling seeing the seafloor disappear before your eyes, and an altogether different lighting scheme signals the beginning of Four Saints, proper. Musically and visually, the Ensemble Parallèle production works splendidly. Conductor and Music Director Nicole Paiement and Director Brian Stauenbiel have created another engaging, well-crafted and beautifully performed piece and while it may not be as arresting as the brilliant Orphée they presented earlier this year, it succeeds on the strength of its very strong cast and theatrical flair.

Even if he weren't brilliantly costumed in red, it would be hard to take your eyes off Eugene Brancoveneau's Saint Ignatius whenever he opens his mouth. His voice just gets better and better. Competing with Brancoveneau for attention is John Bischoff's Compère, a delightful singer and actor who presides over it all with an air of Keith Moon keeping it in check. The entire cast is vocally splendid, but three women deliver especially memorable turns: Wendy Hillhouse as the Commère was brilliant; Nicole Takesano's Saint Sarah was another standout whose clear voice drew attention; and Heidi Moss' Saint Teresa I, dressed in a fantastic yellow gown (all the costumes by Christine Crook were great), centered all of the madcap activity swirling around her.

As can be expected with Ensemble Parallèle, the staging and lighting by Matthew Antaky are clever and inventive. I especially liked seeing the Picasso portrait of Stein at the top left of the backdrop, making it seem as if Stein herself was a saint, watching the show from above. Paiement conducted the 22-piece orchestra with her usual precision and flair.