Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

What Dreams May Come

July 25, 2010

Roger Honeywell and Carin Gilfry
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2010

It’s a great story. Lewis Spratlan, a composer and music professor at Amherst College, is commissioned to write an opera based on Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th Century play La vida es sueño in the late 1970s. Before it sees the light of day, however, the producing company goes belly up in 1978, leaving Spratlan with a score that is all dressed up with nowhere to go. He shops it around with no success. The opera, called Life is a Dream, sits on a shelf until the late 90s when the composer and some supporters scrape together enough money to do two performances of a concert version of Act II which lo and behold wins the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. A big success, but oddly the offers do not start pouring in. But fate isn’t done with this opera yet, and when Santa Fe Opera shows interest in the work a number of years later, the stage is set for the world premiere that was 32 years in the making and which I attended on Saturday June 24.

Like I said, it’s a great background story. Sadly, that fact does not make Life is a Dream a great opera. And as thrilling as I’m sure it was for everyone involved. including Spratlan, librettist James Maraniss, conductor Leonard Slatkin, and director Kevin Newbury, it was a long, hard slog of an evening met with a decidedly tepid response. You should know that the Santa Fe audience is not unfamiliar with 20th-century music. Santa Fe has long been a national leader in bringing American and World premieres to its devastatingly beautiful theater for nearly a century. That Life is a Dream was picked up here should surprise no one. But despite many strengths and a lot of loving attention, the piece is weighed down with a wordy, confusing, and highly unpoetic libretto that gives the music no room to breath.

The music is precisely the kind of thing you’d expect coming out of an academic setting in 1970s America. Spratlan published an interesting piece in this weekend’s L.A. Times that describes the music better than I ever could, so read it here. It's a "pan-tonal" approach that, Spratlan notes, uses an outright 12-tone system at times. But Life is a Dream seems almost embarrassed by this fact and crushes the dark and conflicting music with reams of often didactic text that is delivered in a somewhat more spoken style than actually sung. The music is interesting and can easily sustain an opera of this length even if it doesn't come off as a personal and unique voice on initial listening. The music direction here was under Leonard Slatkin, of this year's earlier Met Opera La Traviata fiasco. Slatkin is a long-time advocate of 20th-century American music and was a perfect choice for this run. It's a difficult score and he exhibited none of the hesitancy or dis-coordination that dogged him in the press and on the web during his last high profile opera assignment.

But even a resurgent Slatkin had an uphill battle here. The main story of Life is a Dream deals with a prince, Segismundo, who is banished as a child by his father King Basilio when the ruler begins to fear he will be a violent and despotic ruler. After the prince has spent a lifetime in ignorance and captivity, his father begins to feel guilty and decides to drug the prince and bring him to court for a sort of surprise trial run as monarch. If he does well, fine. If he gets violent or loses it, they'll just drug him again, send him back, and tell him it was all a dream. Of course, this is what comes to pass and Act III deals with the actual end of Segismundo's captivity and his struggle to determine what is real and what isn't. It's an intriguing notion for an opera. Sort of a 17th-Century version of The Matrix. But somehow it's transformed into something frequently dull and tedious. Life is a Dream is weighed down with characters and subplots that are introduced and then never adequately resolved. There are two pretenders to the King's throne, as well as a daughter to the royal jailer, Clotaldo, who poses as a man when first meeting her father, for unclear reasons, and then spends the rest of the time demanding an equally incomprehensible justice from everyone.

The performances of the singers were all quite good, including Roger Honeywell as Segismundo, James Maddalena as Clotaldo, and Ellie Dehn as his daughter Rosaura. I was particularly excited to hear Carin Gilfry as Estrella in my second exposure to her singing since an all too brief appearance on stage in a duet with her father Rod Gilfry during a recital last year. The production by Kevin Newbury was smart looking, incorporating both a sense of the Spanish setting of the story as well as a contemporary feel. The stage is dominated by several tall planks that extend and retract from the side walls of the stage with yellow lights lining their edges. These contrast nicely with the fairy-tale Spanish-influenced costumes and the beautiful Santa Fe landscape which is always on display here. But visually pretty or not, this was a long two-and-a-half hours that left a lot in the audience decidedly wanting more.

P.S. An unrelated Santa Fe rant. - One of the many joys of being in Santa Fe is the great food. If you're here this summer, which you should be, I highly recommend that you avoid dining at Geronimo. After years of dining there, the 1990s decor and tired menu have succumbed to a staff who are apparently unable to handle something as simple as a reservation. There are so many great choices in town - don't wast your time and money there.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?



Opera Reviews '10-'11

Opera Reviews '09-'10

Opera Reviews '06-'09

L.A. Phil Reviews '09/'10

L.A. Phil Reviews '08/'09

L.A. Theater Reviews


Follow Along


Los Angeles

Follow me on Twitter