Spratlan’s arid, pretentious “Dream” proves dated and deadly in belated world premiere

August 22, 2010

Roger Honeywell as Segismundo and Ellie Dehn as Rosaura in Lewis Spratlan's "Life is a Dream." Photo: Ken Howard

“What labyrinth is this where reason finds no clue?” cries the frustrated King Basilio on the stage of Santa Fe Opera.

Those were my sentiments as the clock passed the two-hour mark in Thursday night’s performance of Lewis Spratlan’s Life is a Dream. The opera is having its belated world premiere this summer at Santa Fe Opera.

Spratlan’s opera, based on the play La Vida es Sueno by the 17th-century Spanish writer Pedro Calderon de la Barca, is one of those mystery works that is famous for being famous in the music world, even though very few people have ever heard a note of the actual opera.

Commissioned by New Haven Opera Theater, Spratlan completed Life is a Dream in 1975, but the company went bankrupt before a performance could be mounted. The composer arranged a concert performance of the opera’s second act in 1999, which resulted in Life is a Dream winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2000. This Santa Fe production is the opera’s belated stage world premiere.

In an economically dire time when even the most venturesome opera companies are racing back to standard repertoire, you have to give Santa Fe Opera credit for being the first to present Spratlan’s long-neglected opus. And the company fielded a worthy production and a first-class cast.

It would be nice to be able to say that after 35 years, Spratlan’s exhumed opera is a neglected masterpiece, but the reality, unfortunately, is far from that. Life is a Dream is a musically dated, dramatically stilted, and deadly work, written at a time when arid serialism still reigned supreme.

The plot has to do with the prince Segismundo, who has been imprisoned by his father, King Basilio, due to a prophesy that his son would destroy the kingdom. Raised in isolation by the nobleman Clotaldo, Segismundo is brought before the king who has had a change of heart. The tormented prince, however, turns out to be an unstable, violent man, defenestrating a servant and attempting to rape Rosaura, Clotaldo’s daughter. Segismundo is imprisoned again, yet, after a revolution and other abrupt devices, Segismuno emerges, improbably, as a more mature and humane ruler. He sacrifices his love Rosaura for the kingdom’s social order to wed Estrella, Basilio’s niece instead, though ultimately he remains unsure if his life is real or a dream.

The baffling scenario serves as scaffolding for the play’s and opera’s philosophical issues, largely how to separate destiny from free will and how to distinguish what is reality and what is a dream.

The problems are many with Spratlan’s opera, not least that, musically, it is a work of its time, crafted in the most barbed-wire style of turgid academic serialism. Spratlan doesn’t seem to have a clue about pacing or narrative—musically or dramatically—and the music is unvaried and cacophonous with brass and percussion to the fore. The dynamics stay at forte or louder for 85 percent of the time, requiring the singers to shout, which proves exhausting for the artists and the audience. Ungratefully written for singers, the declamatory vocal lines seem designed to do as much damage to voices as possible, with high leaps that have no connection to the text and writing in the highest tessitura.

But if Spratlan’s music is dry and dated, the coup de grace is the static dramaturgy and plank-like libretto by James Maraniss. Somewhere in the world there may be a worse opera libretto, but I doubt it. I’ve heard some bad operas over the years (Anthony Davis’s Amistad, Ede Donath’s Szulamit) but never have I encountered such relentlessly unmusical word setting and comically wooden text as here.

Dialogue after Segismundo has abruptly murdered a servant:
“What has happened here?”

Nothing. A man displeased me. I threw him off the balcony.”

There you go. Worse than the blank literalism is Maraniss’s adaptation of de la Barca’s high-falutin poetry, which may read well in Spanish but as sung here in English, just sounds like comically bad, pretentious writing.

The blazing crystal firmament is but small conquest to my haughty breath.”

Are you kidding me or what? Add Spratlan’s gnarly academic music to Maraniss’s interminable talky scenes and you have the operatic equivalent of water-boarding.

I mean, damn. With all the worthy American operas that continue to lie neglected by our major and regional companies, why waste time and money on this desiccated relic of late postwar serialism? Any short list would include Menotti’s The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street, Ward’s The Crucible, Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and Cold Sassy Tree, Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge, and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra.

I hope Roger Honeywell doesn’t damage his middle-weight lyric tenor with these performances. The Canadian singer gives the performance of a lifetime, throwing himself into the role of the tortured Segismundo as if he were singing Tristan, holding nothing back and attacking the punishing vocal line with alarming intensity.

John Cheek’s bass-baritone is decidedly wobbly now but the veteran singer brought proper dignity to Basilio, even with Spratlan’s bizarre sudden falsetto notes. James Maddalena was a superb Clotaldo, and Keith Jameson was, as usual inspired as Clarin, the Shakesperian jester (though his getup suggested Terry Gilliam’s Patsy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

As Rosaura, Ellie Dehn sang well in her brief opportunities, and Craig Verm and Carin Gilfry were engaging youthful siblings as Astolfo and Estrella.

David Korins’ eye-catching futuristic sets offered floating neon bars and assorted industrial-chic constructs. Director Kevin Newbury did what he could with the static storyline.

Leonard Slatkin, in his first opera assignment since his much-publicized sacking from the Met’s Traviata last spring, clarified Spratlan’s overscored orchestra and kept the music moving, but too often failed to keep the boisterous astringencies down for the singers.

2 Responses to “Spratlan’s arid, pretentious “Dream” proves dated and deadly in belated world premiere”

  1. Posted Aug 23, 2010 at 10:28 pm by Gary Hoffman

    I attended this earlier this month. I agree with your assessment of the music. The style was already out of fashion when Spratlan began composing it. I disagree with your opinion of the sets. They just added mischief to a deplorable production. As for the singers, what a waste!

  2. Posted Sep 30, 2010 at 7:43 pm by Charles Warren

    This review strikes me as not hearing, not seeing, not feeling in face of a truly remarkable music drama and production. I was in Santa Fe for two performances of the work and wrote it up for Berkshire Review of the Arts (berkshirereview.net). Readers may also be interested in the rave New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini published on July 26th.