I come away from this taut opera with powerful images indelibly planted in my brain. I can’t shake the mysterious, disturbing, and yet powerful atmosphere that has been created in Paul’s Case, the latest production by Urban Arias.
There’s the auditory twang of grace notes, with three women making that odd vocal “hiccough” then landing on an almost impossible cluster of straight tones which then grows in power until it fashions itself into the eerie sound of a distant train.
There’s the sound of a human whistle that can suggest diffidence but can also signal the brave but lonely cry of an outlier. There’s the glare of twenty-seven pendant lights baring down on the taught white skin stretched across the face of our main character with his thin-lipped smile seemingly plastered so long it has become a grimace.
There’s Paul’s silent footfall as he walks slowly down the center of the black reflective stage-floor, between rows of audience members on each side staring across the space and bearing witness to this character’s journey.
Based on an original story by Willa Cather, Paul’s Case seems at first an unlikely little piece on which to base an opera. But composer Gregory Spears and Artistic Director Robert Wood have made a convincing case indeed that this is the perfect form to bring the work to the stage.
How else to share the many voices in Paul’s head – those of his father, teachers, and headmaster in industrial Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century, voices that threaten to crush his spirit and from which he longs to escape but never can? How better to emulate Willa Cather’s own love for opera and Paul’s fantasy world, ignited by the glittering artifice and magical elevated sounds of Carnegie Hall? And, in the second half of the show, what more delicious way to distinguish the romantic and worldly grandeur of life as Paul envisions it should be for him when he runs away from Pittsburgh and takes up residence in the Waldorf Astoria in New York City?
The musical technique of grace notes mentioned at the top of this review is borrowed from the Baroque period and repeated throughout the opera. Composer Spears uses it so consistently and with all the characters that it becomes the essential language of the entire score.
With it, Spears explores emotional colors to mean different things in different contexts and voices. The three female singers effectively use the vocal attack of this technique when, as Paul’s classroom teachers, they pounce on their ingratiating student who seems to mock them and hold them in contempt. In the baritone range of Paul’s father, the odd pitch leaps represent a shrug of dismissal or an emphatic command for the boy to grow up and fly straight, a kind of “get with the program.” In Paul’s voice, it can feel as artificial as his little dandified bow or like a stammer, indicating a hesitating lack of understanding about who exactly he is.
The character’s ambivalence about his desires and own nature is both explored and mercifully protected as we follow this “study of a temperament” through the opera. Audience members are given permission to shift their assessment of Paul’s character throughout the work. This is a remarkable feat, and director Kevin Newbury avoids heavy-handed choices but rather keeps the work deliciously turning, honoring Cather’s mysterious little gem.
Newbury has pushed the singer-actors out of naturalism towards an expressionistic style of performance, marked by a heightened, chillingly stark stylization. The choice shows the bold music off well and captures the story’s atmosphere. This may be challenging at first to some audience members and seems to add to our work of peeling through the layers of costumed drama, historical period, and a complex musical score.
But I realized that the process mirrored well the craft and tone of Cather’s original story. The challenge to the reader-observer is thrown like a gauntlet to “stay in the game” of this study of character and to keep trying to get to the heart of this maddeningly curious boy.
The performers sing the complicated score well and work tightly as an ensemble, several of them playing multiple characters. This keeps the work a chamber opera in scope and places the focus on what is taking place internally in Paul’s head.
James Shaffran plays the well-meaning but frustrated principal (who wants to break through to the misguided youth) and doubles as a hotel bellboy. Melissa Wimbish, Erin Sanzero, and Amanda Crider are marvelous as the buttoned-up teachers who swoop down on Paul then transform themselves into the ever hopeful and helpful young maids at the Waldorf Astoria. Wimbish and Sanzero even take a turn as nineteenth century opera or recital singers, though I will admit that, in this scene at least, I longed for much clearer distinction of voice, a new color and size of sound.
Jonathan Blalock is terrifically cast as Paul. The role demands that Paul maintain an enigmatic countenance through long orchestral passages. Blalock manages such a look, at once strained and opaque, what others read into at different times as superciliousness, dandyish effeteness, boredom, disrespect, sexual innuendo, and ingratiating fawning. This sly shifting troubles and often enrages those around him. Blalock has done his due diligence with the tricky score and wears this music proudly like the well-tailored suit he adorns, complete with superb flourishes like his red carnation.
Keith Phares as Paul’s father embodies well the strict disciplinarian. His stern deep voice seems to carry all the pompous weight of a man formed and imprisoned by the industrial age society, and, at the same time, this singer actor touches me with a father’s consternation over his lost son.
In the role that is just called “the Yale Boy,” Michael Slattery creates a memorable scene playing off of Blalock’s Paul. These are two young men who meet by chance and go out on a single night’s spree in the big city, where alcohol and falling snow mingle to blur edges and remove certain inhibitions. There is both rakish daring and coy flirtation going on in this heightened emotional scene, a highlight of the evening.
I cannot praise enough the imaginative and winning concert of design elements of this show, so economically yet lovingly wrought. Amanda Seymour’s monochromatic period costumes are beautifully designed with detail one can appreciate sitting so close to the action. Set designer Timothy R. Mackabee has created onstage a long hallway floor, painstakingly assembled in a pattern of oblong wood pieces, fitted together and polished to a gleaming ebony. With a few straight-backed wooden chairs and a chaise that are easily brought on and off, Mackabee transforms Artisphere’s black-box theatre from a chilly boarding school room to an elegant room in New York’s poshest hotel, and from a street in the city to a train trestle, a grave, and, perhaps, the mysterious black universe itself.
Closes April 28, 2013
1101 Wilson Blvd
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Friday thru Sunday
There is something rare and appreciable about hearing and seeing an opera in such an intimate space. It’s not only the performers but the orchestra that one can keep taking in and responding to, and Conductor Robert Wood shapes a beautiful sound with his ensemble of nine instrumentalists. He moves assuredly through Spears’ complex score with its difficult shifting tempi, entrances, and dissonant chords, and under his leadership the show comes together seamlessly.
This is a work that will both challenge and reward you. I hope I have made my case. With only one weekend of performances left, I urge you to give the high artistry of Urban Arias your support.
Paul’s Case . Music by Gregory Spears . Text by Kathryn Walat and Gregory Spears . Conducted by Robert Wood . Stage Direction by Kevin Newbury . Produced by Urban Arias . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith