Guest Review: “Life is a Dream” – Santa Fe Opera, August 19, 2010

Note from William: The odds against any opera being successful are very long. However, if newly composed operas are not performed, or if once they are first performed, they are never performed again, then there is almost no chance of new works joining the standard operatic repertory.

The Santa Fe Opera since its founding in 1957 has dedicated a portion of every season to new and/or unfamiliar operatic works, to the enrichment of American opera performance.

As one would expect with experimental works, not every one will be successful, nor, even if highly regarded by some, will find favor with everyone. Since neither myself nor Tom, the principal guest reviewer, was able to schedule the new work in Santa Fe Opera’s 2010 season, we have requested two colleagues, who have been enthusiastic about some of the new works premiered at Santa Fe Opera in the past, to give us their impressions of Spratlan’s “Life is a Dream”.

Impressions of Spratlan’s  “Life is a Dream” by Ann Judson and Kiern Allen

We (two opera nuts, not journalists) would like to thank the purveyors of this site for offering us the task of reviewing “Life is a Dream”, the Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 12-tone opera. We heard reports after Act 1 that the parking lot was jammed, but we happily remained in the theater, not out of any loyalty to said purveyors, but because we enjoy theater, whether traditional or experimental. And this opera tended toward the experimental.

[Edited image: the court of King Basilio (John Cheek, center, wearing crown); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The Plot: James T. Kirk has just taken way too many Quaaludes, and the Enterprise spirals out of control upon entering a Romulan Time Warp, when he is suddenly transported to a planet where EVERYONE takes themselves VERY SERIOUSLY and where there is absolutely NO HUMOR: not even the Court Jester can crack a good joke.  Kirk finds himself in a cell wearing animal skins and is half-mad with crazy revenge fantasies and a hyper-hubric image of himself.  Oh wait. In this nightmare dream, Kirk is really Segismundo, a young prince banished by his father, King Basilio, and raised in a tower in the wilderness because of bad omens at his birth.

[Below: Clotaldo (James Maddalena, right) attends to Prince Segismundo (Roger Honeywell); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The libretto for Life is a Dream was adapted by James Maraniss from a 17th century play, La Vida es Sueno, by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, which is considered to be the Hamlet of Spanish literature. Indeed, the play provides a very operatic story with larger-than-life characters. After all, Star Trek itself was iconic and rather Shakespearean in tone. But the opera, as performed, evoked only the dead-serious aspects of the story and was devoid of any humor or uplift that could have been emphasized.

Blending many themes including a father/son power struggle, questions of fate and self-fulfilling prophesies, illusion vs. reality and honor vs. the senses, the story is largely grim and gruesome, but operas have handled this kind of stuff for hundreds of years. There is a battle for Basilio’s throne between the rightful heir, Prince Segismundo, and his cousins, Astolfo and Estrella, as well as a frustrated love between Segismundo and Rosaura.

[Below: Prince Segismundo (Roger Honeywell) with his rival Estrella (Carin Gilfry); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Roger Honeywell, as Segismundo, threw himself into the part with a ringing, declamatory tenor that was always audible over a very large orchestra, and his words were clear – no small feat! He was also able to portray the character without that hesitant dependence on the conductor that many singers display when trying to manage difficult 20th century music. And although some of the opera was reportedly written in strict 12-tone language, such as Basilio’s music, other characters were given more lyrical lines. We could hear that Segismundo’s themes were sung right on pitch as doubled by the orchestra. We just wished that his music had not been so incessantly loud!

Composed in 1975, the opera abounds in the harsh-sounding wide vocal leaps that dominated so much of the vocal writing during the mid 20th century. But the orchestra, full of percussion, vibraphones, gongs, etc., created a wonderfully evocative tone overall which began the opera, and there was some very effective orchestral coloring of the text throughout. At the end, a fantastic effect with the musicians blowing over bottles while Segismundo simply spoke his final text was worth the wait. During the bows, conductor, Leonard Slatkin, deserved the applause from the audience and from the ecstatic Mr. Spratlin, who, after waiting 35 years to see the piece fully staged, looked like he was having the time of his life.

Director Kevin Newbury has a nice opera and theater resume, but we thought he missed finding the right tone for this piece. He seemed to go for “realism” with the characters engaging each other directly and in period costumes (beautifully done by Jessica Jahn) as per the story. But we thought the rather abstract set design by David Korins, which consisted of huge lit-up “logs” that would descend from the walls as if to trap the characters in their fate, signaled a more appropriate, stylized way to go. For example, the New York Times reviewer thought that tenor Keith Jameson’s jester, Clarin, stole all his scenes. We beg to differ. Despite his clarion voice, which cut through brilliantly, he sang all his humorous observations to the characters he was addressing. We would rather have seen him come right out to the audience with these gems.

[Below: Clarin (Keith Jameson, center right) plays the fool for Segismundo (Roger Honeywell); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Another directorial flaw was having Astolfo (baritone, Craig Verm) and Estrella (mezzo-soprano, Carin Gilfry) act like petulant soap opera characters with mugs and affectations. Their music already said it all – they are “Gibichungs” – and to emphasize and modernize their silliness cheapened the tone of the piece.

A much better tone – both vocally and theatrically – was provided by Ellie Dehn as Rosaura. Her voice is warm and opulent, and she created a beautiful, dignified and sympathetic character. Also effective was baritone James Maddalena as Clotaldo.

[Below: Ellie Dehn as Rosaura; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

But bass-baritone, John Cheek, as the King Basilio, was not a very happy camper. We liked his dissipated demeanor – a tired king weighed down by his choices, like Lear – but he was not comfortable with the music, and his voice was not up to the considerable challenges of the role. Just for starters, he and Segismundo are required to use some falsetto effects, which only occasionally worked without painful yodels.

We felt, overall, that the piece has potential and should be attempted again by other companies – but it will need more singing actors with huge voices who can handle this kind of music, a very clever director and a lot of rehearsal time: luxuries not available to many companies these days. Nevertheless, Bravo, Santa Fe Opera, for taking on a worthwhile, if difficult, project.

Now, beam us up, Scottie!