The words “world premiere” don’t always translate to “Must-See,” but in the case of Paul’s Case, a post-minimalist, compact opera unveiled by UrbanArias at Artisphere, they’re synonymous.
Adapted from a 1905 Willa Cather short story of the same name and set in gritty, post-industrial Pittsburgh, the work, composed as a eulogy by Gregory Spears with libretto by Spears and Kathryn Walat, is an unyielding coming-of-age story about a misfit teenage boy who burns too brightly, then burns out too soon blinded to the fact that things DO get better. Being “something of a dandy” is his crime – that, and wearing a red carnation in his velvet lapel, shrugging off authority and being obsessed with theater (guilty as charged!). When his overbearing father strips him of his ushering job and prized gold-braided uniform to sentence him to a bean-counting desk job, Paul’s frustration veers to true crime: theft and runaway passion.
So he’s off to New York City by train for a taste of the good life, like every bold, brash adventurer before him, from Cornelius Hackl of Yonkers in Hello, Dolly! to the fabled puppet Pinocchio, who is weary of his wooden life and confined by the strings of others’ expectations. You know, “Hi diddly dee, the actor’s life for me” – Paul also shares Pinocchio’s propensity to lie.
From the top, Director Kevin Newbury brilliantly telescopes Paul’s fate by playing puppet master with this foppish cut flower, sung with devilish twinkle by tenor Jonathan Blalock and dimples that don’t quit. Blalock’s sweet straight tones are like pastry-shop delicacies, and his breathless phrasing, underpinned by harpist Nadia Pessoa, bewitches. Train sounds permeate the orchestration and dissonant harmonies of a trio of stoic sopranos – Melissa Wimbish, Erin Sanzero and Amanda Crider – as they morph seamlessly from uptight schoolmarms to divas to goof-off maids at the Waldorf Astoria.
Like Pinocchio, who befriends every stranger he meets with no thought to class distinction or danger, Paul is drawn into a seamy jaunt with an errant Yale freshman: foxy tenor Michael Slattery, whose layered, lathering and zestful strains prove the evening’s icing. Newbury moves Blalock and Slattery around the stage in lockstep as if on animatronic tracks, foreshadowing the tragic fork in Paul’s path. Amanda Seymour’s authentic period costumes, affording Paul special touches of color and texture, are shown off in non-static museum lighting by Eric Southern. Supercharged and beaming Paul’s pain, the lights roar the obvious: “TRAIN!” Yet Southern also employs a ceiling of 27 contemporary steel orbs (headlamps?) that rise and fall, moving from lights of inquisition to a clinical, crushing suffocation.
One telling scene: a table is set with fine linen and flowers for Paul’s benefit that feels funereal, like the covering of a body with a white sheet and condolence arrangements. Paul sings “to dine!” but we hear “to die!!” Gleaming white is at war with blood red, a motif echoed by the tablecloth and the grand drape occasionally drawing the orchestra into the tableau, as well as Paul’s beloved carnation, full with the bloom of a red-blooded male, against the pale, drifting snow.
If operatic meat and potatoes is what you want, Baritone Keith Phares as Paul’s father is a succulent feast. Keep in mind that the 120-seat Black Box Theatre at Artisphere once housed the TV studio of the Freedom Forum’s original Newseum. While its soundproofing makes it the deadest theater space around, that feature is all that protects patrons from going deaf amid seven virtuosos singing literally in their lap. Still, Phares manages to break the sound barrier with profound, chill-inducing precision.
And these vocal lines aren’t easy, full of unconventional humming, whistling, and grace notes sounding at times like yodels or hiccups. As the tempo picks up, steamrolling toward the opera’s sorry destination, these jumpy ornaments, known as “acciaccatura,” evoke both the flippancy and ferocious resolve of its characters. Stage Designer Timothy R. Mackabee erects another challenge for the singers with his traverse set, which splits the audience down the middle like railroad ties, capped on one end by the sparkling orchestra. The set-up forces the actors to perform effectively in the round, often with their backs to crackerjack maestro Robert Wood, as they warily navigate the complex baroque-inspired score.
Yes, actors! Because in this intimate venue, acting seems paramount to pristine singing (the cast is rounded out by utility Baritone/Bass James Shaffran). In keeping with UrbanArias’ mission to make opera not only more relevant to modern audiences but palatably short and worth your time, Paul’s Case easily makes the case that opera speaks your language.
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Running time: About 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. Talkbacks with the creative team and cast are planned after each performance.
Paul’s Case plays through April 28, 2013 at Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre – 1101 Wilson Boulevard, in Arlington, VA, a short walk from the Rosslyn Metro. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 841-2787, or order them online.