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Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'Life Is a Dream'

Roger Honeywell (Segismundo) in Life Is a Dream, Santa Fe Opera, 2010 (photo by Ken Howard)
The Santa Fe Opera’s satisfying world premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s Life Is a Dream offered a fresh adaptation of Calderón’s 17th-century play La Vida es Sueño in conjunction with Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary year. The New Haven Opera Theater commissioned the work in 1975 but folded before presenting it. Spratlan, a retired professor from Amherst College, received a Pulitzer Prize for a self-funded concert performance of Act II in the year 2000. His semi-serial musical language exudes an academic wit.

As heard on August 12, the work began with a high, slowly moving violin cluster that gradually builds in orchestration, while on the stage thirteen large lighted mechanical watch arms lowered abstractly to frame the sunset over the Jemez mountains. Rosaura (Ellie Dehn) claimed the first enchanting vocal note, which glistened within the orchestral texture with both consonance and dissonance and was followed by odd, yet beautiful intervals. She and the jester Clarin (Keith Jameson) fitfully stumbled across the prison tower of Prince Segismundo (Roger Honeywell) when following “the sun looking for a new horizon”; obligingly, the sunset backdrop actually reappeared with dramatic color after passing thunderstorms. At intermission, a worker in the Opera Shop noted that in Santa Fe, rain is always appreciated, even during an opera. Not by coincidence, the roof of the Crosby Theater can collect and store 60,000 gallons of rainwater.

During Segismundo’s anguishing aria concerning his fate of imprisonment, decreed at birth by his father, King Basilio (John Cheek), the orchestra burst into complicated, ever-changing colors and textures. Bouncy winds and brass supported the King’s idea to release his son from the tower, allowing him to become a true Prince pending the conduct of his free will. As Segismundo, Honeywell’s tenor voice, even if not large, was agile and focused, while Cheek's King Basilio ably scaled falsetto heights on one note and dropped to the lowest in his bass range on the next. Often an entrenched orchestral line loosely helped along the solo part. Nonetheless, conductor Leonard Slatkin deftly held the singers’ hands at all times -- sans baton -- while magnificently balancing a myriad of orchestral demands. This run should aid in putting last spring’s unfortunate episode at the Met further into the rear-view mirror (it may be featured in Slatkin's upcoming book Conducting Business).

Other Articles:

George Loomis, Life is a Dream/Albert Herring, Santa Fe Opera (Financial Times, August 10)

Heidi Waleson, Boys Will Be Boys (Wall Street Journal, August 10)

Sarah Bryan Miller, Santa Fe Opera: Benign "Magic Flute," flawed "Life is a Dream" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9)

Scott Cantrell, 'Life is a Dream' comes to life in Santa Fe production (Dallas Morning News, August 7)

Kyle MacMillan, As "Life is a Dream" comes true, reality is a dramatic reverie (Denver Post, August 1)

Anthony Tommasini, Overdue Debut for Composer and Exiled Prince (New York Times, July 25)

Brian Holt, What Dreams May Come (Out West Arts, July 25)

James M. Keller, Spratlan's 'Dream' comes true in impressive premiere (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 25)

Lewis Spratlan, 'Life Is a Dream' remained a dream for three decades (Los Angeles Times, July 25)

David Belcher, What Dreams May Come (Opera News, July 2010)
As the watch arms raised to act as a lighted ceiling for the King’s court, Segismundo’s tower lowered, allowing its top to become the King’s bare metal, futuristic throne. An atonal Viennese waltz indicated that the soon-to-be-married cousins, the likely Hapsburg Astolfo (Craig Vern) and Estrella (Carin Gilfry), were an unnatural succession to the throne. Vern’s expressive baritone and the chorus of the King’s subservient attendants overshadowed Gilfry’s subdued tone, though not her cool Mikado Plant-like crown.

The King admonished his son for throwing a servant off the balcony and raping Estrella’s attendant Rosaura by singing: “It grieves me that your first act of freedom should be an act of grave homicide… Be humble, for perhaps you are dreaming even while awake.” Segismundo is forced to return to the tower but is soon freed by the people who wish for a “natural” king. Rosaura gently offers her support and affection, motivating a big Romantic chord that went beyond all previous parameters of expression. Segismundo laments, “But what if I awake from this and find it [Rosaura’s love] gone?” It would have been welcome if this vivid indiscretion had been shared with some of the vocal parts, which often sounded too much like speech, a complaint also voiced about Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice, for example. James Maraniss’s succinct libretto kept the plot moving.

When Segismundo and his supporters found the King and his aid Clotaldo (James Maddelena), through a forest of watch hands, instead of beheading the King, Segismundo, of his own free will, pardoned his father at the last minute and then to an angular flute line crowned himself. The opera ends quietly as the lights go down slowly with Segismundo leaning forward toward the enthralled audience as King.

The final performance of Life Is a Dream is on Thursday (August 19) at Santa Fe Opera.

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