In the midst of an economic recession, the Santa Fe Opera boldly has launched a compelling season including a new work by an American composer. Last Saturday night, Life is a Dream made its world premiere. Based on a nearly 400-year-old Spanish classic, the opera revisits ancient human questions with a distinctly modern interpretation.
The story turns on a prophecy, power politics and the timeless struggle between fathers and sons. American composer Lewis Spratlan and librettist James Maraniss reached back to Spains Shakespeare, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, for inspiration. His 1635 play, La Vida es Sueño, is considered a classic. Calderóns hero, Segismundo, often is described as the Spanish Hamlet.
Set in Poland to conveniently remove the story to a foreign country and distance any implied criticism of a king, Dream centers on a young prince. Segismundo has been exiled and chained to a tower on order of his father, King Basilio. The superstitious king believed a prophecy that his son would become a tyrant. Years later in a moment of contrition, the king orders the son drugged and brought to court to prove if he indeed is evil. As if in a dream, Segismundo awakens and behaves very badly. Hes drugged again and returned to his prison. An unexpected plot twist, subplots and plenty of court drama bring the opera to a brilliant, if ambiguous, conclusion. No spoiler alert here.
The thin veil between illusion and reality is the central issue, one we humans continue to ponder. Witness the popularity of the new movie Inception, not to mention the current popularity of so-called reality TV shows.
Directed by Kevin Newberry and designed by David Korins, Life is a Dream could take place anytime, anywhere. The dystopian set is a sci-fi jungle of metal girders that move like giant insects entrapping human inhabitants. In contrast, the costumes, designed by Jessica Jahn, suggest Calderóns 17th century milieu. Segismundos prison rags suggest a primordial cave except for the chains that tether him to a magnificent, metal tower that telescopes up and down. At its top, a sleek, electrified throne sits looking like a futuristic nightmare.
Disturbing is an apt descriptor for Spratlans atonal score. The music is complex, jarring and perfectly suited to a world out of kilter. Segismundos opening aria (strongly sung throughout by tenor Roger Honeywell) expresses pure anguish. As the princes rage and confusion mount, his music probes the edges of torment. It is relieved only by the music of court ceremonies, battle scenes, the kings lament and the voice of the wronged Rosaura (beautifully sung by Elli Dehn), which introduces lyrical longing.
While I yearned for one breath of a major chord or one solid resolution, the composer remained true to his material throughout. The ending is powerful, but, it, too, doesnt resolve into anything approaching a tonal center.
Spratlan, 69, gave a press conference the morning of the opera and detailed the long road to the premiere. In the mid-1970s, the New Haven Opera Theater commissioned him to write the work. A few years later, the company went bankrupt, but Spratlan finished the opera and tried to interest other companies in a production. No luck. In 2000, Amherst College, where Spratlan taught composition for 36 years, mounted a partial performance as a concert version of Act II. This production won Spratlan the Pulitzer Prize in music.
Leap ahead another few years, and Charles MacKay, general director of SFO, approached Spratlan with a proposal to premiere the full production in 2010.
Now approaching 70, Spratlan seemed delighted with his long journey. At the news conference, he said he made only minimal changes to his 32-year-old score. He extended the duet between Segismundo and Rosaura near the end of Act II. It had seemed too short at an early workshop, so he added material. Except for the works stunning conclusion with Segismundo alone on stage, the duet probably is the poetic highlight of the opera.
Spratlan also said as a young composer he enjoyed writing challenging music for the singers. But as he has mellowed, he said he sanded down some of the sharper edges.
To be sure, the opera is vocally demanding and instrumentally complex. MacKay wisely invited the eminent Leonard Slatkin to conduct.
There are three more performances of Life is a Dream before the season ends on August 28.
There are five more productions of Puccinis Madame Butterfly, another timeless story with deep roots in Western and Eastern literature. Soprano Kelly Kaduce portrays Cio-Cio-San, the young Japanese geisha who marries Lt. B.F. Pinkerton (Brandon Jovanovich), a handsome American naval officer. Three years later he leaves her with a promise of return, and she faithfully waits. When he finally comes back, he brings his American wife and wants to take his son to America. Fathers and sons, again.
Santa Fe has created an entirely new production for Butterfly. Its extraordinary beauty stems from set designer Jean-Marc Puissants pared-down architecture with a large moon overshadowing Butterflys house. When Pinkerton brings in an American flag, it visually changes the scene. So does Puccinis interjection of the Star Spangled Banner in the texture of the score. Visibly and audibly, Butterflys embrace of American dress, values and religion is made clear and underscores her tragedy.
Soprano Kaduces Cio-Cio-San is a miracle of transformation, compelling and touching. Shes perfectly matched by Jovanovichs romantic pursuit of her, his American bravado and the ultimate abandonment.
Whether youve never seen Butterfly or its a long-time favorite, find a way to see this production.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.