New—And Improved: In Paul’s Case, a Young Opera Festival Yields Its First Masterpiece

'Paul's Case.' (Courtesy PROTOTYPE)

‘Paul’s Case.’ (Courtesy PROTOTYPE)

New York’s newest opera festival, PROTOTYPE, a collaboration between Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, crams five local premieres and a galaxy of side events into less than two weeks of early January. Now, in only its second season, the festival can claim its first masterpiece, the chamber opera Paul’s Case.  With music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat, this gem redeems dozens of evenings struggling with listless or unreachably far-out contemporary opera.

It would be tempting to call this show “the best new opera I’ve heard in years,” if it weren’t for the happy coincidence that it premiered the same season as Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. Every bit as poignant as the Muhly work heard last fall at the Met, Paul’s Case in many ways displays an even higher level of technical polish.

The plot closely follows a Willa Cather short story by the same name. Paul, a dreamy misfit teen in early 20th-century Pittsburgh, steals money from his father’s office to live out, for a few days at least, the glamorous life of a New York socialite. But dramatically and musically, Paul’s Case finds its own forms, borrowing only a handful of phrases from Cather’s text and setting them rapturously with the insistent word repetition we associate with baroque opera.

It’s a perfect marriage of text and music, creating a series of tableau-like scenes, as if Paul’s story is being related through a series of exquisitely posed still photographs—exactly, in fact, the lapidary manner in which Paul envisions his life.

Mr. Spears’ music is grounded in the chugging, surging rhythm of the train on which Paul escapes from his drab hometown.  Overlaying that is a dreamy haze of slowly shifting musical lines that never seem to develop or change. Instead, they just drift. The melodies recall palm court music, light classical pieces played as background music in upscale restaurants of the period.  It’s a striking depiction of Paul’s adolescent attitude that there is neither past nor future, only a blissful, eternal present in his suite at the Waldorf Astoria.

Even Paul’s vocal lines hang suspended. Mr. Spears has daringly written the music for the hero—onstage for practically the entire 90 minutes of the two-act opera—right around F at the top of the treble staff, a transitional part of the tenor’s voice technically called the “passaggio.” As the term suggests, this area is generally one the singer “passes” through on his way either upward or downward to more secure tones. But, just as Paul has chosen to put himself in his precarious social position, his phrases never seem to move anywhere in particular. They shimmer in a no man’s land in between vocal registers.

The remarkable young American tenor Jonathan Blalock sustained this grueling tessitura up to and including a tour de force final solo scene with hardly a trace of strain.  The pale timbre of his voice evoked both Paul’s immaturity and his emotional shallowness, and his permanently fixed smirk might read as smug or delighted, depending on the context. (It’s an important plot point of the original story that the teachers at Paul’s high school find his attitude disturbing but they can’t quite put their finger on why. This aspect of the character Mr. Blalock caught precisely and efficiently.)

Populating the outskirts of Paul’s self-centered world were rich-voiced baritone Keith Phares, incisive in his bombastic solos as the boy’s father, and tenor Michael Slattery, sweetly lyrical as the puppyish Yale student with whom Paul may or may not have had a gay fling. (The opera leaves this detail as ambiguous as it is in Cather’s story.) Baritone James Shaffran etched a comic cameo as the bewildered high school principal.

Almost as busy as Mr. Blalock was the trio of women’s voices, consisting of Amanda Crider, Erin Sanzero and Melissa Wimbish, fluttering through the action as teachers in Paul’s school, classical divas at the concert hall where he was an usher and, most delightfully, as chambermaids at the Waldorf Astoria, waltzing blissfully around the stage while folding bed linens.

The production by Kevin Newbury utilized the intimate black-box theater at HERE in a novel way, setting the action on a black lacquered ramp subdividing the room, with the audience seated on either side. The arrangement at first suggested a fashion show, with Paul working the runway like the star of his own couture collection. Later, with the addition of only a few well-chosen pieces of furniture, the structure suggested the aisle of a concert hall, the sitting room of a hotel and the lonely railroad tracks where Paul meets his doom.

Despite HERE’s parched acoustics, the American Modern Ensemble, conducted by Robert Wood, sounded appropriately ethereal or thundering as the mood of the opera gradually darkened. And Kevin Chambers nailed the grandiose piano solo at the climax of the work.

Another intriguing offering from PROTOTYPE was the double bill “Visitations” by composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Dan O’Brien, based on the phenomenon of auditory hallucinations. In a brief run at Brooklyn’s Roulette performing space, the operas both featured the medieval quartet New York Polyphony joined by soprano Mellissa Hughes, with a chamber orchestra led vigorously by Christopher Rountree.

The more interesting piece was Theotokia, a glimpse inside the mind of a man who is, depending on your point of view, either suffering a psychotic break or enjoying an ecstatic communication with the mother of God. Geoffrey Williams, countertenor, warbled jagged phrases of gibberish as the remaining cast members, constantly changing costumes, admonished him in the strict harmony of Shaker hymns.

More exciting, if also more conventional, was The War Reporter, an episodic tale inspired by real-life photojournalist Paul Watson’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Christopher Dylan Herbert gave a searing performance in the title role, minutely finessing the vibrato in his bright baritone to suggest Watson’s encroaching panic. The score sounded superbly crafted, with a long and intense cadenza for percussionist David Cossin a highlight, but as the story meandered, the music devolved into generic late 20th-century dissonance.

Another problem with this piece is that it stacked the deck morally to the extent that a critic felt uneasy questioning it aesthetically. Yes, war is horrible, and people in wartime do horrible things and have horrible things happen to them, but the sheer worthiness of the subject matter doesn’t exempt an opera from being a good opera.

This objection applies even more to another PROTOTYPE piece, Thumbprint, composed by and starring Kamela Sankaram. Based on the true-life story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was the target of gang rape as a form of honor revenge, the opera felt ordinary and obvious, with Ms. Sankaram’s trite music and Susan Yankowitz’s sentimental libretto reducing a harrowing tale to Lifetime Movie status.

The score features mostly easy-listening pop ragas tricked out with Western style rock backbeats on the trap set. It lies comfortably enough for Ms. Sankaram’s bland lyric soprano, but only musical theater performer Manu Narayan brought the show to life with his aggressive singing of the Elder’s courtroom scene.

The orchestra sounded ragged under the direction of Steven Osgood, particularly when the musicians were called on to provide lengthy interludes of hand clapping. Rachel Dickstein’s production, in the Baruch Performing Arts Center, told the sprawling story in mostly literal terms, with the unwelcome addition of that laziest modern cliché of stage design, video projections that looked like Mac screensavers.

Ironically, Thumbprint won only polite applause, whereas the gradual blackout that finished Paul’s Case left the audience in silence punctuated only by a few stifled sobs.  Why should an anecdote about a small town nerd be more moving than a saga about human rights? It’s the difference between great art and mediocre art.