Opera review

'Paul's Case' has some fine moments, but it's uneven

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You may remember Willa Cather's short story "Paul's Case" from high school English class, but an absorbing opera based on the tale may give you the chance to experience it in a new way.

Pittsburgh Opera is putting on Gregory Spears' "Paul's Case" at the company's Strip District headquarters through Sunday. The chamber opera premiered last year at the Washington, D.C.-based company Urban Arias.

It felt right that the opera should have a homecoming to Pittsburgh, where half of the short story takes place. The new production mostly featured Pittsburgh Opera's resident artists, including stage director George Cederquist. Mr. Spears' compelling take on the short story makes the engaging opera well worth seeing, even if the performance yielded mixed results with staging and singing. The music itself is inspired by Baroque and minimalist traditions.

In case you were snoozing in the aforementioned English class, the story follows Paul, a teenager obsessed with art and music, as he escapes from his dreary hometown of Pittsburgh for a brief jaunt in New York City. He ultimately commits suicide after discovering his father is coming to retrieve him.

As the lead, Daniel Curran took on the role's significant demands with a pure, clarion voice and strong control, even if he struggled in some quick interval changes. The tenor had commanding stage presence, although his character didn't seem quite tortured enough until late in the opera.

Alex DeSocio, playing Paul's father, used a remarkably rich tone to create the distressed character. The baritone showed off a big sound and impressive control across changes in volume. It was too bad the role wasn't bigger for the strong performance.

Gregory Spears’ ‘Paul’s Case’
Where: Pittsburgh Opera at George R. White Studio, Pittsburgh Opera headquarters, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $40; www.pittsburghopera.org or 412-456-6666.

As Paul's principal, Philip Gay was the first to sing in the opening scene, in which Paul appeals his school suspension. The bass-baritone set a powerful standard with an engaging, full timbre, although at one point the role noticeably veered below his range. He also played a humorous bellboy at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where Paul stays in New York.

The opera's three women took on multiple roles as well, as teachers, opera singers and hotel maids. The trio often sang together, exposing issues with blend and balance, as the singers were strong in different parts of the range.

Nicole Rodin played the English teacher whose expensive seat at a Carnegie Music Hall performance upsets Paul, an usher there. Her tone was acceptable but marred by a wobble. Rebecca Belczyk could sound beautiful in the upper register, but was inconsistent through her range. Samantha Korbey was a sturdy singer and a comical actor -- at one point she humorously took away the Yale boy's bucket of vomit -- but her voice lacked operatic depth.

The suggestion in the short story that Paul is gay is expanded in the opera, with a fleshed-out role for the Yale student whom Paul meets in New York. The part was played by Christopher Toeller, who had a smallish voice and a confident, if over-the-top, stage presence. The simple set relied on differently colored curtains to convey location, enhanced by some clever staging techniques. In the last scene of the first act, as Paul was leaving Pittsburgh, he walked into a coffin-like curtain at the back of the stage. At the end, the other characters emerged from the same back curtain with a bright light representing the train that kills Paul.

But a few moments missed the mark. Throughout the opera, Paul was constantly changing clothing, a process that highlighted the protagonist's preoccupations with appearance (and other characters' concerns that Paul is "something of a dandy"). Watching him get dressed during the overture was awkward, and the motif was excessively repeated.

Conducted by Glenn Lewis, the orchestra was solid but occasionally too loud.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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