Life in Santa Fe is certainly dreamy in general, but even we who live in this southwestern dreamscape need the escape from reality that great art provides. Big dreams in the arts can pay off big time but there are no guarantees. What can you say about an opera company that would give up additional performances and guaranteed sell-outs of a production such as Madama Butterfly or The Magic Flute in favor of the challenges of a new production? I am referring, of course, to our own Santa Fe Opera and its continued commitment to new work, which this year has resulted in the world premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s Life is a Dream.
Based on a Calderon masterpiece of the Golden Age of Spanish Drama, this new opera by Lewis Spratlan won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Music and is finally in production, 35 years after its inception, thanks to the adventurous spirit that has ruled in Santa Fe from the humble beginnings of our beloved opera company. An exploration of provocative questions about the nature of perception and reality, this story in song lets us consider issues that have endured through the ages to this day. Celebrated conductor Leonard Slatkin and director Kevin Newbury have assembled a stellar cast of singers and designers, and the serendipity of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary adds New World zest to the enjoyment of this dramatic work from Old Spain.
So much in this production is timely and demonstrates how certain aspects of civilization remain constant. Concepts regarding how to rule, fear of the future, injustice, compassion, awareness of the natural world and the notion of Maya (life as an illusion), all these play a part in this grand drama. Both the composer and his librettist, James Maraniss, sought poetry – in fact, Mr. Spratlan says that “Poetry is the gunpowder for a composer” – and the text and the orchestra work seamlessly to bring the power of their poetry to life. Certainly, these are not the melodic strains that an evening of Mozart might provide, but the wild ups-and-downs of the vocal lines and the eerie sounds emanating from the pit seem so apt for this tale of political intrigue and family drama.
I found the casting to be appropriate and the acting genuinely convincing. Tenor Roger Honeywell, who debuted here in 2007 with another premiere (Tea: A Mirror of the Soul) returns to Santa Fe as Prince Segismundo, who must find a balance between his early life and his future, reality and the dream world. As his father King Basilio, bass-baritone John Cheek makes his Santa Fe debut as a ruler who wants to preserve the harmony of his kingdom but makes the fraught decision to take an omen as fact. Also back this year as the nobleman Clotaldo is baritone James Maddelena, who has enjoyed success in a number of avant-garde roles (think Nixon in China, as well as last year’s premiere, The Letter, in which he made his Santa Fe debut). Soprano Ellie Dehn makes her first appearance in Santa Fe in the pivotal role of Rosaura (with a simply beautiful aria at the end of the second act). The shoes of the jester Clarin, who functions as jesters always do, with both humor and incisive insight, are ably filled by Keith Jameson, familiar to Santa Fe audiences from tenor roles past as well as his tenure as an apprentice. And apprentices function critically too, as Carin Gilfry, in her second year in the apprentice program, provides an archly amusing performance, along with baritone apprentice, Craig Verm, suitably scheming and somewhat oily. The chorus, as always, adds depth and vocal color, and Mr. Slatkin keeps the tip-top orchestra at the top of its game. And even though my life would be a dream if I am reborn as an opera singer (anybody listening?), I did not envy these performers the vocal challenges they worked to master in their roles!
Of course, this being Santa Fe, the summer weather played its part perfectly, with lightning and thunder thoughtfully adding theatrical effect as the house lights went down with the thermometer. Safe and warm in our seats in this beautiful covered outdoor theatre, we were able to engage fully with the dramatic power of this story. The expert lighting and starkly minimal and modernist stage settings provided just the right background and mood and offered a satisfying juxtaposition to the attractive costumes, evoking the Spanish court, but with unusual headresses that echoed the impending industrial age.
So, what do we say about this gutsy troupe turning its back on extra performances of the bankable known for an operatic voyage into the unknown? We say, “Bravo!” No surprise from this compelling company dreamed up in the high mountain desert by John Crosby! And what do we say to those of you who might want to take this voyage with them? We say get your tickets now, because there are only five chances to have this dream yourself. As Segismundo sings “Whether it’s real or not, to act well is what matters,” and the Santa Fe Opera has made it matter!
Santa Fe Opera Photos by Ken Howard (All Rights Reserved)
Disclaimer: Red is an art school graduate with a passing acquaintance of the piano, but is not a music critic! Here is what the real music critic says: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/arts/music/26dream.html?ref=anthony_tommasini