Lewis Spratlan’s Opera “Life is a Dream” Premiered at the Santa Fe Opera

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Lewis Spratlan's Life is a Dream: Roger Honeywell (Segismundo) & Keith Jameson (Clarin). Photo Ken Howard.

Lewis Spratlan’s Life is a Dream: Roger Honeywell (Segismundo) & Keith Jameson (Clarin). Photo Ken Howard.

Life Is a Dream
Santa Fe Opera, July 24th through August 19th
Music by Lewis Spratlan
Text by James Maraniss, after Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Conductor: Leonard Slatkin
Director: Kevin Newbury

(First published in The Berkshire Review for the Arts, August 5, 2010)

Segismundo – Roger Honeywell
Basilio – John Cheek
Rosaura – Ellie Dehn
Clotaldo – James Maddalena
Clarin – Keith Jameson
Astolfo – Craig Verm
Estrella – Carin Gilfry

Lewis Spratlan and James Maraniss were subsequently awarded the Charles Ives Opera Prize for 2016 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The story has been well told in the musical press by now about the delay in production of Lewis Spratlan’s great opera Life Is a Dream — commissioned in the late 1970s by an opera company that went out of business before the opera could be produced; rejected numerous times by other American and European companies; awarded the Pulitzer Prize a decade ago for a concert performance of Act II; more rejections for a full staging… Congratulations and thanks are due at last to General Director Charles Mackay and the Santa Fe Opera for taking a new look at this work, seeing its intrinsic worth and its great potential as staged music drama, believing in it, and now giving it a committed and brilliant production. This occasion is a triumph for all concerned. Here palpably, for the eyes and ears and mind, is one of the great American operas, one of the great modern operas, one of the great operas.

American? Mr. Spratlan was born and raised in Miami, his family of Alabama origin. He studied music at Yale. He has lived and worked in western Massachusetts for most of his adult life, teaching for many years at Amherst College. The material of Life Is a Dream is the classic seventeenth-century Spanish play La Vida Es Sueño of  Pedro Calderón de la Barca — beautifully translated and adapted by librettist James Maraniss. The musical style is schooled in Berg and Bartók (and late Beethoven), and sometimes makes one think of Ligeti. But, yes, American. There is an integrity in the interest of expression, a freedom with musical styles, an eclecticism, in the spirit of Charles Ives. There is an agonistic quality with flashes of transcendence like the poetry of Hart Crane. And the central emotional and philosophical obsession of the piece, focused in its protagonist, is — no better word for it — Mellvillean.

Lewis Spratlan's Life is a Dream: John Cheek (King Basilio) & Chorus. Photo Ken Howard.

Lewis Spratlan’s Life is a Dream: John Cheek (King Basilio) & Chorus. Photo Ken Howard.

Prince Segismundo has been raised imprisoned in a remote tower due to his father King Basilio’s fears about bad omens and astrological predictions at the time of Segismundo’s birth. Second thoughts induce the king to bring the prince to court for a day to see in fact how he will behave. Segismundo at court gives free rein to his long repressed desires, bullies everyone, commits murder, starts to commit rape, and is drugged and returned to his tower, being told that his day back at court was just a dream. In the remarkable final act the prince starts seriously worrying about what is real, declines to lead an offered political uprising, reconciles with his father, promises to marry a cousin for court purposes rather than the woman he has really been taken with, and ends up tamed, no longer singing but merely speaking — at least for now.

Segismundo dominates the opera, and it hard to separate the role from the great performance of Roger Honeywell, a true Heldentenor and a superb actor, lithe and athletic, his face and all that is on it, or in it, projecting throughout the theater. Segismundo/Honeywell comes on strongly from beginning to end, agonizing and protesting at first about his imprisoned condition, uncorking himself frighteningly when brought to court, meditating, worrying, and taming himself in the later stages. Spratlan’s free atonal music has Segismundo singing out his strong feelings and his worries with great vocal leaps, sustained and intense long lines, endlessly inventive rhythmic emphases, apt speeding up and slowing down. The words are all important here (Calderón, Maraniss) — everything serves to put them forward. The orchestra — small string section, single winds and brass except for two French horns, and multifarious percussion — gives Segismundo its fullest expressive powers, rich, stirring, reaching out, aiming for more and more, trumpets soaring — or all turning dark and hesitant.

Other characters come across differently, and we realize, getting beyond Segismundo a bit, that the opera creates a complex world with different points of view and appropriately different kinds of music. King Basilio is given, in his voice and in the orchestra, an other-worldly, sparkling music with space between the notes, music that projects his being caught up in mathematics and astrology/science, heavy-headed, worried, full of thought. This music is in fact written in the strict Schönberg twelve-tone style — the man is caught in a mental web — but what most matters is the music’s new color and hesitant pace. Bass John Cheek is not as strong in voice at all points of the scale as he once was, but he sings the part with great conviction — his domination of the court and his misery are most effective. Clotaldo, the prince’s jailer and tutor, with a child he has lost track of, worrying and trying to do right, has more old-fashioned long plangent vocal lines — all this well put across by superb vocal actor James Maddalena. Character tenor Keith Jameson steals his scenes and wins many laughs as Clarin, a sort of jester figure and self-advancer who appears unaccountably in every situation, giving the whole drama some distance and puncturing its realism — finally he catches a stray bullet, absurdly, in the third act rebellion and goes to his death. Baritone Craig Verm and mezzo Carin Gilfry are fine as the king’s nephew and niece, angling for advancement to power. The chorus (master Susanne Sheston) sings superbly and moves about the stage with agility, reacting to all that goes on and trying to stay aligned with the powers that be, as they seem to shift.

Lewis Spratlan's Life is a Dream: Roger Honeywell (Segismundo) & Carin Gilfry (Estrella). Photo Ken Howard.

Lewis Spratlan’s Life is a Dream: Roger Honeywell (Segismundo) & Carin Gilfry (Estrella). Photo Ken Howard.

At the beginning of the opera a soprano comes on in male attire, engages with the imprisoned prince, and later, in female attire, becomes the chief romantic attraction for the prince — Rosaura. Ellie Dehn sings the part with a creamy, lustrous legato, entirely attractive. At the beginning, we do not know who she is, and she talks obscurely about a vengeance mission. For a long time in the opera we do not hear any character’s name. Rosaura and others are constantly uttering something to the effect of who am I? I am not what I seem. What is going on? And eventually, am I dreaming? What can I trust? Confusion is the very point. That is the world we live in. Calderón’s play, born in the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy (there is no way to know absolutely that one is not dreaming the world and its values), becomes the world of Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Towards the end of Act III Segismundo and Rosaura have a very moving scene, the most “sung” in the opera, where their maturity and humanity flower fully even as they renounce each other to go their separate ways of duty in the interest of not breaking the spell of dream, which may be reality. At the end we listen to a solo flute reminiscent of the ancient meditative Japanese solo flute, bringing a certain eastern perspective of acceptance and reconciliation to this turbulent story of characters who feel intensely and think agonistically.

The production’s design by David Korins, lighting by Japhy Weideman, and costumes by Jessica Jahn, are committed to the piece and rivet the attention. Great lighted arms, suggesting machine-like destiny and torment, move into the stage during the prelude, waving from the sides, and never go away for good. The prince’s prison-tower rises up from below and descends, like a phantom of imprisoning experience, all too real. The court is surrounded with metal doors like a Kafka scene. The vivid costumes suggest a Renaissance court, but not too precisely — we are in a universal realm. Kevin Newbury’s direction is really beyond praise. He and his cast of singing actors believe in every word and note of this piece, and Newbury has drawn from everybody their best. He keeps everybody moving and circulating, churning and re-positioning, and they carry it off with aplomb. This is a confusing and dynamic world. The orchestra score is hard, especially as something new, and the musicians here play it admirably, also with unmistakable belief in what they are doing. Conductor Leonard Slatkin must take credit — he was on top of this. The first performance was stunning and overpowering. The second performance was at once tighter and more relaxed, more colorful and varied, for orchestra and singers. These people are very high on what they are doing, and remaining performances will likely only season and improve the event.

The Santa Fe Opera, its theater set on a plain among the mountains, sides and back open to the night sky, gives a feeling to the staging like that of Greek tragedy seen in an amphitheater such as Epidaurus. We are in a realm of musical drama (Greek tragedy was musical drama) of endless emotional and philosophical reach. The beautiful old adobe churches of northern New Mexico feature large altar paintings of dark crucifixions in the center surrounded by bright colors and flashes of ecstasy in the side panels, all quite resonant with Spratlan’s Life Is a Dream. Somewhere hovers the ghost of D.H. Lawrence, above his mountain top retreat and now gravesite at Taos. Lawrence loved New Mexico and all American art at its profoundest and most radical and emotionally compelling. New Mexico has been a great and appropriate place to premiere this opera, but it needs to be seen everywhere.

Lewis Spratlan

Lewis Spratlan

About the author

Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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