Spears opera delivers a polished and compelling character study
The second annual Prototype festival opened Wednesday night with the New York premiere of Gregory Spears’ strong and polished chamber opera Paul’s Case at HERE, the co-producing theater.
The piece is an adaptation by composer Spears, working with librettist Kathryn Walat, of Willa Cather’s short story of the same title. The subject is a young, arrogant man in Pittsburgh, who sees himself as meant for grander things in life. He feels unfettered by conventions of society, steals money from his employer and runs off to New York City to live what he imagines in his mind is an adventure.
The libretto, which also interpolates texts from Stephen Crane, is finely made. The original prose sentences are skillfully transformed into lines that have the rhythmic structure and succinct length of verse.
The music is graceful and grave and Spears writes with careful determination. He uses short melodic phrases and simple sequences of chords, mostly no more than two or three, putting them together in series of short, repeated sections. Those in turn come together into long, lyrical passages invariably culminate in plangent cadences, the voices reaching higher as the accompaniment lands on pedal tones.
The composer’s vocal writing is especially admirable. All the music sits in what sounds like the ideal range for each of the singers; the shape of the notes allows for both a full sound and clear articulation. The ensemble scenes are particularly impressive, with up to four or five voices each clearly heard and supporting the others.
The opera is through-composed, the music homophonic and full of waltzes and walking tunes. In style and orchestration it has a streamlined, modern sound and also captures the colors of what one might imagine 1906 would sound like: sun-lit parlors, upholstered train seats, the social values and concerns from Dos Passos novels (reinforced by the lovely period costumes of Amanda Seymour). The small ensemble (piano, clarinet, harp, bass and string quartet) is solidly led by conductor Robert Wood.
HERE is a postage-stamp sized black-box theater, so everything must be small, but this music would sound fine from a full orchestra. As it is the sound fills up the space, which also carries a few pieces of furniture in Timothy R. Mackabee’s spare set design.
As strong as it is, the music also turns out to be an occasional weakness. The effect of cadence after cadence is heard so often that it becomes expected and loses some power to influence, gradually, through each repetition.
In the role of Paul, tenor Jonathan Blalock sings almost constantly throughout the full ninety minute length of the opera, and his stamina never flags. A strong vocal presence, he also carries enough charm that his character, who condescends to everyone, is never irritating but instead sympathetic; his offenses are material, his dreams believable and human.
There is so much of Paul that the other fine singers give much-needed sonic relief and variety. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider, and sopranos Erin Sanzero and Melissa Wimbish double as teachers and maids, the latter two filling Paul’s imagination as “Opera Sopranos.” Bass-baritone James Shafran is a dignified Principal; Michael Slattery, a tenor, shines as the Yale Freshman whom Paul meets in New York. The unsung star is baritone Keith Phares, Paul’s father: he has a burning, incisive intensity that grounds the opera in human feeling and tragedy.
All the elements of the production come together into a remarkable final moment from director Kevin Newbury and lighting designer Eric Southern. Paul lies in the snow, lost in his dreams of himself, singing of the “yellow sands of Algeria” and “the blue Adriatic” as the lighting rig slowly descends on top of him. Perhaps he is dying, but, literally, his horizon is imploding until it’s lost within him.
Spears keeps the pace and tone of Paul’s Case within a steady range of tempo, from andante to allegro, and the emotional pitch from a warm simmer to burning passion. There is some brief, lighthearted piano music at the start of the second act, and the music for the young man “from San Francisco/a freshman at Yale” whom Paul “takes a flyer” with in Manhattan is carefree, almost giddy. Both passages are refreshing and thrilling to the ear, and at those times the opera hints at a possible dramatic direction and resolution.
Yet the craft and thoughtfulness that is clear in the libretto and music on a word-to-word and note-to-note basis never quite come together into a clear large-scale structure. The protagonist begins as supercilious and self-regarding and ends with a grandiosely romantic self-image. Paul’s Case is not transformational drama, but as an operatic character study works powerfully and well.
Paul’s Case repeats at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, January 9. The Prototype festival continues through January 19 prototypefestival.org