That persistent tradition stems from year one, when John Crosby commissioned 1957’s production of Marvin David Levy’s one-acter, The Tower. A quick and dirty survey of newly composed operas presented at Santa Fe since then reveals premieres of over 40 works by non-US composers, plus 15 operas by American composers—12 of them premieres. Six of these Americans won the Pulitzer Prize for music, but only one for an opera premiered at Santa Fe. That one? Lewis Spratlan for his of Life is a Dream.
Well, officially only the second act of Spratlan’s work took the prize. He and librettist James Maraniss completed the opera in 1978 on a commission from the New Haven Opera Theater; by the time the piece was finished, the company had folded. Life sat on the shelf until 2000, when the second act found performances at Amherst and Harvard. The Pulitzer followed, but not another production. Until now.
Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play, La Vida es Sueño, holds a sacred place in the canon of golden-century Spanish drama. Like Hamlet, with which it’s often compared, it’s a play of ideas. Unlike Hamlet, there’s not much dramatic tension nor character development. Calderón’s people are mostly one-dimensional chess pieces on his intellectual game board. (Sorry, España. Sad cultural bias, I’m afraid.)
Fearing for his reign, Basilio, the vain, superstitious king of Poland, imprisons his newborn son, Segismundo, to forestall astral predictions of regicide and misrule. Years pass. That rightful heir, now a beast-man raised in chains by the faithful Clotaldo, is brought to court where he runs amok. Re-exiled to the wilderness and prison, Segismundo somehow gains humanity and fellow-feeling in a confusing final act. The ultimate question remains for Calderón and his hero: What is reality? What is dream? Can we know?
Spratlan calls his craggy score “pan-tonal,” an all-inclusive term to describe a dense brew of old-fashioned atonality, serialism, plenty of dissonance, plus tonal bits that include a triple-time polonaise, a march and a madrigal. His hard-working orchestra, capably led by Leonard Slatkin, delivers a jagged moto perpetuo that exhaustively, often wearily, exploits just about every possibility of instrumental range and coloration. Second Viennese School, move over.
Roger Honeywell sings Segismundo, a cruelly punishing role that’s mostly high-volume, upper-register declamation cum shouting. John Cheek is the shallow, deep-voiced Basilio and James Maddalena aptly presents Clotaldo as a hapless king’s henchman. Keith Jameson cuts a deft figure as the doomed fool, Clarin, cartwheel included.
The opera’s lyrical, lovely moment belongs to Ellie Dehn in her second-act lament as Rosaura, Clotaldo’s daughter. Sycophantic co-rivals to the throne, apprentice artists Carin Gilfrey (Estrella) and Craig Verm (Astolpho) present themselves very well, indeed.
The SFO’s deluxe new-opera scenic treatment features designer David Korins’s massive illuminated pylons that figure and reconfigure menacingly to define the drama’s mechanistic universe. Jessica Jahn’s russet, ruddy costumes come straight from a courtly fairy tale. And inventive director Kevin Newbury delivers supple stage movement that often belies the action’s essentially static nature.
Is Spratlan’s nearly middle-aged child worth hearing? Conditionally, yes. Does it have “legs?” Conditionally, um, maybe. Is the SFO behaving true to form by providing a handsome, comprehensive mounting? Unconditionally, absolutely.