21 October 2017

The Case for a Recording of ‘Paul’s Case’

The original cast of Paul’s Case, in Kevin Newbury’s staging, with Jonathan Blalock in foreground.

Some operas stay with you. Some performances never leave you.

I had never read Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case” before I read about Gregory Spears and Kathryn Walat’s operatic adaptation. The story is remarkable, poignant, chock-full of secrets and whispers. At its center is Paul, a young man who resembles the tenor Jonathan Blalock in every detail, to such a degree that you wonder what sort of time machine Cather used to visit our era and to meet Jonathan. She gets him, down to his mysterious smile. It’s as if Jonathan springs to life on her page.

I’ve had this sensation before, when reading Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and seeing the actor Gérard Philipe in the central character of Julien Sorel. It was almost like fan fiction, as if Stendhal admired Philipe so much that he wrote a part especially for him. (Stendhal wasn’t above that sort of thing, I hasten to add.) Then one day I went to the cinéma, and there was Gérard Philipe playing Julien Sorel. The universe aligned, somehow. It was always necessary for Philipe to play this character, and then he did.

Seeing the opera at its New York premiere, part of the Prototype Festival, in 2014, I discovered that the music for Paul’s Case suits Jonathan every bit as much as the character does. His clean, incisive tenor shines as the chamber ensemble slides and scurries around him. In The New Yorker, Alex Ross has written far more eloquently about this opera than I ever can, as is his wont, but allow me impertinently to vouch for him: He’s right. This is a gorgeous, important score.

In an ideal world, we’d have a video of Kevin Newbury’s haunting, poetic production, for Urban Arias, with the original cast. We don’t live in an ideal world, however, and now Urban Arias is coming to the end of a fund-raising drive to finance an audio recording.

Imagine if Maria Callas had never recorded Tosca, if Lauren Worsham had never recorded Dog Days. That’s how you’re going to feel if Jonathan Blalock never records Paul’s Case. This is a once-in-a-lifetime portrayal. Sure, Spears’ opera is so powerful that other tenors will want to sing the role, some day. But they will never be quite like Jonathan, never quite so right and natural and expressive. They may or may not have lived out parts of Paul’s story — Jonathan has. They may never be able to give full voice to this character and his music — Jonathan does. They may never know what Jonathan has done with the role — I do.

In a fund-raising drive like this one, every little bit helps. The campaign is coming to an end. If you can part with a little money, I hope you’ll do so. The link is here.

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