2000 Pulitzer Prize in Music (Act II, Concert Version)
Libretto in English by James Maraniss after the play La vida es sueño
by Pedro CalderónPremiere:
July 24 2010
Santa Fe Opera
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Santa Fe, NMSynopsis:
A king, Basilio, banishes his son, Segismundo, to a tower in the wilderness rather than subject his people to the reign of a cruel and tyrannical prince, a future foretold by the stars. Basilio, when Segismundo comes of age, has second thoughts. Maybe the stars were wrong. Or perhaps will is stronger than fate. Basilio orders that the prince be drugged and brought to court. If he is good he will remain and inherit the throne; if not, he will be drugged once again and sent back to the tower, where he will be made to believe that what he saw was only a dream. Cast:
BASILIO, the King: bass
SEGISMUNDO, his son: tenor
CLOTALDO, Segismundo’s jailor: baritone
ROSAURA, Clotaldo’s daughter: soprano
ASTOLFO, Basilio’s nephew: baritone
ESTRELLA, Basilio’s niece: mezzo-soprano
CLARÍN, Rosaura’s servant: tenor
FIRST SERVANT: tenor
SECOND SERVANT: baritone
FIRST SOLDIER: baritone
SECOND SOLDIER: tenor
Chorus of courtiers, soldiers, and camp followers: SATB drawn from the chorus:Composer Note:
Calderón's La vida es sueño
, often cited as the Hamlet
of Spanish literature, recounts the tale of a king who banishes his son, Segismundo, to a tower in the wilderness rather than subject his people to the reign of a cruel and tyrannical prince, a future foretold by the stars. Basilio, when Segismundo comes of age, has second thoughts. Maybe the stars were wrong. Or perhaps will is stronger than fate. Basilio orders that the prince be drugged and brought to court. If he is good he will remain and inherit the throne; if not, he will be drugged once again and sent back to the tower, where he will be made to believe that what he saw was only a dream.
These conflicts lead to Calderón's central picture of life: an illusion, a frenzy, a dream. After some terrible events occur (a murder, an attempted rape, a revolt), the prince begins to restrain himself, to become a chastened, austere monarch. He does so in order to affirm the eternal values of a civilized order, which appear to him as self-evident, because everything within him and without is chaos. The play is great enough to permit many interpretations, and the one given in this opera is a tragic one. Here the prince must suffer an emotional death before he can begin to control himself. He learns to regard his erotic and self-expressive imaginings as so destructive that he must exchange them for the narrowest kind of orthodoxy just to survive. He must gamble on the efficacy of the transcendental, which presents itself in the opera as arbitrarily as if it were a Euripidean god from a machine. He must sacrifice a taste for life, after having lived through the effects of his own violent nature and the social world that had both repressed and exacerbated it.
Questions no less persistent than the clash of father and son, the uncertainty of dreams and reality, and of fate and free will, play out in an ancient world which is finally not so different from our own. Calderón sets his drama in Poland, to a Spanish audience of the 1630's distant and strange but Catholic. The authors have preserved distance in time and place without specific cultural reference (save for hints of a Polonaise in the first act) to point up the fundamental, changeless aspect of these questions. In making a libretto one had to deal with Calderón's elaborate Baroque poetic language, which itself carries much of his view of life. What had to be done with the play was to cut most of the rhetorical filigree, to use a modern English poetic language both plain and expressive worthy to be set to music, just a little more complicated and formal than regular speech. Though much condensed, the libretto is essentially faithful to Calderón's play, with its operatic sense of timing and its organically evolving dramatic situations.
The music of Life is a Dream
hangs very much on its verbal language. Vocal lines mostly follow the rhythm and contour of spoken English, at times heightened, at times plain. The orchestra functions variously: in moments of exposition its role is simple - to support and articulate; in moments of intensity it sometimes illustrates or elaborates the action, sometimes undercuts it or provides ironic commentary, and sometimes establishes links with earlier musical/dramatic ideas. A variety of traditional forms (dances, marches, a madrigal, a lament) provide musical oases stable, rounded moments in a texture which is otherwise highly open ended, full of change, and, reflecting the hero's character, somewhat wild. Consonant with Calderón's intricate verbal edifices, the music on occasion builds itself into grand, symmetrical designs, which, as in the original, virtually consume the characters. But the prevailing musical discourse tends to proceed as in life, always unfolding, with the occasional reiteration for emphasis. This is enabled by an unmetered, quasi-recitative technique which slips in and out of the texture with very little fuss, allowing for quick and unobtrusive musical gear-shifting. The instrumental forces are modest: single woodwinds, two French horns, a single trumpet and trombone, piano, harp, percussion, and strings.
Each of the characters is linked to a thumbprint musical style, drawn quite directly from dramatic function. Segismundo's musical language is in general highly inflected, wide in range and full of the torment suggested by dissonant intervals and erratic rhythms; Basilio's relies upon the projection of a great 12-tone construction that stands for his fundamental belief in the givens of the universe; Clotaldo's conveys sympathy through a high degree of consonance and rhythmic evenness; Rosaura's is contained, temperate, measured; Astolfo's and Estrella's is pompous and bloated with rhetorical figuration; Clarín's is buffo, clipped and constantly linked with his namesake trumpet. These musical characterizations, though, needed little inventing on the part of the composer: the particularity of Calderón's language required only careful listening and dramatic sensitivity to find its musical voice.
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....
New Mexico has been a great and appropriate place to premiere this opera, but it needs to be seen everywhere.
Charles Warren, The Berkshire Review, 05/08/2010
Life Is a Dream is a powerful, profound drama grand opera in the fullest sense of the term.
It's true that its running time is comparatively modest a little less than 2 1/2 hours and it does not contain the big action scenes that enliven some works in the form, but it traverses vast psychological and thematic territory....
As prickly as it can be at times, the orchestral score is utterly compelling complex, evocative and other-worldly. Yes, it is atonal, eclectic, at times a mysterious soundscape of sharp-edged discordance, disparate percussion and piercing strings.
But in many ways the music transcends atonality because Spratlan inserts a host of other influences and elements from past and present, including a brass fanfare, polonaise and even a kind of street band.
...Life Is a Dream holds the promise of an extraordinary dramatic and musical journey that more companies will surely want to take.
Kyle MacMillan, Denver Post, 01/08/2010
The music is complex, jarring and perfectly suited to a world out of kilter. Segismundo's opening aria (strongly sung throughout by tenor Roger Honeywell) expresses pure anguish. As the prince's rage and confusion mount, his music probes the edges of torment. It is relieved only by the music of court ceremonies, battle scenes, the king's lament and the voice of the wronged Rosaura (beautifully sung by Elli Dehn), which introduces lyrical longing.
Judith Reynolds, The Durango Herald, 30/07/2010
Life Is a Dream is an important opera, the rare philosophical work that holds the stage and gives singing actors real characters to grapple with.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 26/07/2010
From a musical standpoint, Life Is a Dream is an imposing accomplishment, the more so in light of the bland pablum that has so often been tendered in stage works of more recent vintage.
James M. Keller, The New Mexican, 25/07/2010
...Here musical languages are used for the purpose of characterization....The vocal writing defines the characters in basic and subtle ways; it also keeps the text clear; the orchestration is vivid, colorful, imaginative, and characteristic in the sense that it too defines the characters....The music is full of effects that sound genuinely theatrical a military band approaches, for example, and there is some lively stage music (peasant dancing, a choral madrigal, etc.).... David Jackson conducted an augmented Dinosaur Annex ensemble in a performance that was articulate, committed, and convincing.
Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe
On the whole, "Life is a Dream" was a triumph for the Santa Fe Opera....Mr. Spratlan's opera resonates in the mind long after one has left the theater. It deserves to be produced by other major companies, and since its forces are modest, universities and conservatories should tackle it as well. Spratlan clearly has a flair for opera...
Barry O'Neal, New Music Connoisseur