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Review: 'Paul's Case' an impressive first opera from composer Spears

| Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, 11:24 a.m.
Paul (Daniel Curran, center) has the Waldorf-Astoria maids help him unpack his new suit, complete with top hat and cape. Maids, (from left) are Rebecca Belczyk and Resident Artists Samantha Korbey and Nicole Rodin.
David Bachman
Paul (Daniel Curran, center) has the Waldorf-Astoria maids help him unpack his new suit, complete with top hat and cape. Maids, (from left) are Rebecca Belczyk and Resident Artists Samantha Korbey and Nicole Rodin.
Paul (Resident Artist Daniel Curran) and a Yale freshman (Christopher Toeller) have a drunken night on the town, a 'champagne friendship.'
David Bachman
Paul (Resident Artist Daniel Curran) and a Yale freshman (Christopher Toeller) have a drunken night on the town, a 'champagne friendship.'

Pittsburgh Opera presented the second of three contemporary American operas in its 75th anniversary season on Feb. 22 in the black box theater at its headquarters in the Upper Strip District. The performance of Gregory Spears' “Paul's Case” marked the start of the company's Second Stage Project, which is devoted to contemporary chamber operas and will continue in future seasons.

“Paul's Case” features an intriguing and often beautiful musical language wedded to a stylized libretto that the composer created with playwright Kathryn Walat. It was first performed by Urban Arias in April 2013 in Washington, D.C.

The libretto is based on Willa Cather's short story “Paul's Case.” It's about a misfit Pittsburgh teenager who is a dandy and lives for the arts. He loves to usher at Carnegie Music Hall.

The opera begins with Paul appealing his suspension from high school. Rebecca Belcyzk, Samantha Korbey and Nicole Rodin were the history, drawing and English teachers pushing for his suspension. They also sang well playing hotel maids in Act 2.

The three roles were neatly differentiated but expressed the same vague complaint, a point emphasized by Phillip Gay's sonorous principal who repeatedly asks, “What did he do?” The teachers' complaints are about Paul's attitude, minor things such as a smirking smile. It's actually the teachers' attitudes, their overreaction, that precipitates the tragedy.

The opening scene shows the stylistic stance of the words and music at their best. Spears writes in a minimalist style with some repetitions serving a baroque sense of ornamentation. The text is repetitive too, usually in the key fragments. This fits the opening scene because each of the characters is static. Spears' excellent ensemble writing welds it all into compelling music.

Tenor Daniel Curran gave a superb performance of the title role, vocally secure across the nearly two-octave range and dramatically very well attuned to the somewhat mysterious ambiguities of Paul's character.

Paul comes into his own in the split-stage second scene. He revels in his world at Carnegie Music Hall, while on the right side of the stage his father sits at a desk doing paperwork. Alex DeSocio offered well-supported singing in what is a one-dimensional role.

Belczyk and Korbey shined in a duet Spears wrote, using lines by Stephen Crane, as an example of the art Paul enjoys. But that life is about to end. His father decides Paul must take a real job.

The act ends with a soliloquy by Paul at his new job. Curran effectively set forth Paul's state of mind. He feels he can't live the middle-class life stretching ahead. He really needs time to grow up, but instead decides to steal money from his employer and run off for a weekend in New York City.

The second act takes place mainly at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, where Paul burns through the money by living as though he were rich. Christopher Toeller was excellent as a Yale freshman with whom Paul spends an evening, but Paul looks askance at a romantic advance. He might be too hermetic to have any close attachments, girls or boys.

After Paul reads in a Pittsburgh newspaper that his theft has been discovered and his father is coming to New York to get him, Paul ends up at the Newark Rail Yard, where he stands in front of an oncoming train.

The performance was effectively led by Glenn Lewis, who cued the singers attentively in the tricky score. The excellent nine-member ensemble was drawn from the opera orchestra, with assistant conductor James Lesniak playing piano.

George Cedarquist's staging was direct and effective.

Spears' opera is in two acts with an optional intermission, which Pittsburgh Opera declined. Performed straight through, the opera lasted a little more than an hour and a quarter. Although it felt long, the work is an impressive first opera from an obviously talented composer.

“Paul's Case” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Feb. 25, 8 p.m. Feb. 28, and 2 p.m. March 2 at Pittsburgh Opera, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District. Admission is $40.

Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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