Skillful singers bring a short story to life in UrbanArias ‘Paul’s Case’


Jonathan Blalock in ‘Paul's Case.’ (C. Stanley Photography)
April 22, 2013

A lot of old operas are based on even older stories. The new opera “Paul’s Case,” which had its world premiere Saturday by UrbanArias at Artisphere in Arlington, is based on a 100-year-old tale.

Willa Cather’s short story, once a staple in English classes, was adapted by Gregory Spears into an arresting little piece that communicates its haunting story with clarity and a sense of inevitability.

With a libretto co-written by Spears with Kathryn Walat, the tale of a boy in dreary Pittsburgh who dreams of a glamorous life of theater, song and luxury in New York, still resonates more than a century after Cather’s story was published.

Spears’s score uses both modern and ancient techniques to bring it to life. With a spare, skillful orchestra conducted by company director Robert Wood, there is a minimalist approach throughout, especially in the use of repeated phrases. At the same time the demanding singing style is loaded with neo-Baroque flourishes, with singers jumping keys after grace notes or using ornamental devices such as acciaccatura to drive their themes home. Spears aims to reflect the mechanical repetition of the industrial age even as he has the chorus replicate train whistles that are central to the story.

There’s a rich group of voices assembled for the intimate performance, led by rising tenor Jonathan Blalock, who is youthful enough to be credible as an incorrigible high-schooler whose red carnation clashes so much with his dour, monochromatic surroundings. Blalock is in every scene, but director Kevin Newbury encourages an ensemble approach with a chorus of tight harmony. As the opera starts, that means Melissa Wimbish, Erin Sanzero and Amanda Crider are especially effective as disapproving teachers and bass James Shaffran as the principal.

Baritone Keith Phares, as Paul’s father, has his own deep disapproval, leading Paul to steal money and skip town to fulfill his dreams. After one drunken night with a Yale student he meets (Michael Slattery), the reality comes crashing down on him — in the form of descending lights, a nifty touch by lighting designer Eric Southern in the spartan black-box set design of Timothy Mackabee.

Things move much faster in Act 2, once the action moves to New York. But perhaps that is the nature of New York over Pittsburgh. The only letdown came when the innovative singing that turned to underlying hums and tones turned to whistling — one area the singers clearly do not study.

style@washpost.com

Catlin is a freelance writer.

Paul’s Case

Music by Gregory Spears, text by Kathryn Walat and Gregory Spears, from a short story by Willa Cather. An UrbanArias production at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, through Sunday. Tickets are $20 and $22 and available at 888-842-2787 or at www.urbanarias.org.

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