Virgil Thomson: Four Saints in Three Acts with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Virgil Thomson
LABELS: Boston Modern Orchestra Project
WORKS: Four Saints in Three Acts; Capital, Capitals*
PERFORMER: Charles Blandy, Simon Dyer, Aaron Engebreth, Andrew Garland, Tom McNichols, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, Sarah Pelletier, Deborah Selig, Sumner Thompson, Lynn Torgove, Stanley Wilson; *Linda Osborn (piano); Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose


Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts is an opera more talked about than listened to, partly because there has only ever been one complete recording of it, and partly because Gertrude Stein’s libretto is the most wilfully nonsensical in operatic history. Hitched to Thomson’s spryly bespoke music, however, Four Saints can be made to make sense of a sort, as a Goon Show of aesthetic playfulness, and a fizzily entertaining amalgam of American musical idioms. Parlour waltzes, hymns, marches, spirituals and glee club ditties – all feature, framed within a knowing parody of grand opera conventions.

Conductor Gil Rose is alive to all these elements, and his Four Saints is first and foremost fun to listen to. Much of the vitality comes from the chorus of three dozen singers, who have numerous interjections and bits of commentary to deliver. They do it with vim and freshness, and with an enthusiastic conviction that somewhere amid Stein’s textual tics, repetitions and non sequiturs resides discernible meaning.

The solo singing is mainly very reliable. In the case of baritone Aaron Engebreth it is more than that: his Saint Ignatius is a chipper, resonantly sung characterisation with an appropriate modicum of dignity. The Saint Chavez of American tenor Charles Blandy is also notable, his top notes pinging excitingly in the mini-aria ‘Saint Ignatius might be admired’.

The addition of Capital, Capitals, an earlier Stein setting, adds further attraction to an issue which is a compulsory purchase for followers of Virgil Thomson’s music.


Terry Blain