(Photo: Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera)
The world premiere of Life is a Dream had its opening night at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday, July 24 and I feel fortunate to have gotten tickets. It was my first time attending a production at this marvelous performing arts facility, and, what better time to go? After all, it’s not every day you get to see a world premiere, and Santa Fe Opera’s 12th world premiere at that.
While not familiar with the plot of the original drama La vida es sueño by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), the last of the Spanish “Golden Age” dramatists, I do have the script somewhere and have been meaning to read it for years. This well-executed operatic version with Leonard Slatkin at the helm of the orchestra and direction by the very skilled Kevin Newbury, has given me new impetus to dig out the play from a box containing hundreds of plays that I packed away after college.
With themes like the exploration of the father/son relationship, nature versus nurture, and fate versus free will, combined with a look into the demise of children caused by their parents’ indiscriminate use of their authority, a common thread in Calderón de la Barca’s plays, it’s amazing that I wasn’t on that a long time ago!
Okay, so back to the opera. Imagine it…a sparse, reflective black stage with vertical and horizontal light sticks resembling the crystalline qualities of stalagmites and stalactites, breaking up the darkness. The lights go down and the light sticks begin to move and take their places as limbs in the wilderness. A circle on the floor begins to spiral upwards and soon a 15 to 20-foot rounded piece of scenery begins to emerge. It is a secluded tower (its spire later doubles as throne) in the middle of the woods—home to the banished prince “Segismundo” (Roger Honeywell), forced to live in chains because his father the “King Basilio” (John Cheek) was certain that his son would become a violent ruler. It is here we see both the tormented and human side of a man, thought to be a beast.
Taught by “Cotaldo” (James Maddalena), a nobleman responsible for keeping watch over Segismundo, the protagonist is introduced to the nobleman’s daughter “Rosaura” (Ellie Dehn) and the court jester “Clarin” (Keith Jameson). They are the first people that Segismundo has been in contact with from the outside world. They are captured by the court to keep Basilio’s secret quiet, but Basilio has already questioned whether he made the right decision to keep his son locked up. Is free will stronger than fate? Basilio decides to release his son, drugs him, and brings him to court. After coming to, Segismundo is told that he is, indeed, the prince. Should he behave, he will inherit the throne. Should he not, Basilio will tell him that it was all a dream and Segismundo will be returned to the tower in the wilderness. Of course, the prince, who has not lived among others, and has developed a rage inside for his mistreatment, shows just how violent he can be upon assuming his crown by thrusting a servant over the palace’s balcony. After Segismundo discovers his infatuation for Rosaura and then finds himself in a subsequent fight, Basilio orders that his son be exiled, yet again. Segismundo, to his frustration, is made to believe that his days in court were merely a dream, in spite of the fact that his memories are vivid.
In the final act, a group of rebels comes to help free Segismundo so that he can overthrow his father, Estrella (Carin Gilfrey) and Astolfo (Craig Verm), two cousins, who have come to assume the throne. At the moment of victory, Segismundo is suddenly changed and gives up, pondering the truth of his existence. Basilio, thinking that his surrender is an act of humility reinstates him as prince. The only thing left for Segismundo to do is renounce his feelings for Rosaura, freeing her up to marry Astolfo, and taking Estrella as his wife to restore social order.
With a score by Lewis Spratlan and libretto by James Maraniss (originally written in the 1970s, but never fully produced) the piece has an interesting atonal score with a very thoughtful poetic text. While Spratlan’s score seems limited in scope and variety, its unique melodiousness gently carries Maraniss’ easily-digestible text and provides the cast some positive vocal challenges. The choice to have characters leap from octave to octave kept me on the edge of my musical seat, wondering how notes were going to resolve. I really enjoyed the deceptive cadences that were frequently present. When the orchestra suddenly becomes lyrical, the vocals and action onstage are slightly out of sync augmenting the dramatic effect.
The first act lagged a bit, with some of the performers seeming to hold back only slightly, dramatically and vocally. But, in the second and third acts, it was clear just how fabulous their instruments were and that they possessed fine acting chops. Director Kevin Newbury is a master of the “picture,” and he creates beautiful moments and tableaus that help complement character relationships and firmly tie them to their environments.
Roger Honeywell, a very creepy and disturbed “Segismundo,” gave the production the vocal and dramatic gusto that the role needed. His transformation from empathetic to violent to contemplative and resigned in the final moments was well-timed and believable. Ellie Dehn was stunning both visually and vocally, and Keith Jameson had just the right amount of humor and physical elasticity to make his “fool” a highlight of the opera. The real standout for me was John Cheek as Basilio. His act one aria is what finally engaged me and made me decide “I like this!” Overall, he was very consistent in his portrayal of a man torn apart by his decisions. His role seemed to be the most vocally challenging, and his understanding of line and subtext was impeccable.
And if you’re waiting for me to talk about the fat lady singing, there’s none of that here. The cast is gorgeous and toned, and is exquisitely accentuated by the stunning costume design by Seattle’s Jessica Jahn, and the brilliant, almost “moving through molasses”-like lighting by Japhy Weideman. David Korins’ set, while extremely minimalistic, gave the opera that “wow” factor and created the necessary “other worldly” feel that the tone required.
Life is a Dream continues at Santa Fe Opera with performances on July 28 and August 6, 12, and 19. For more information, visit http://www.santafeopera.org/.