Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

If you like your Ariadne on Naxos productions as playful as a box of puppies, then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the address for you.

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis took forty years before attempting Verdi’s Macbeth but judging by the excellence of the current production, it was well worth the wait.

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

On June 16, 2016, Los Angeles Opera with Beth Morrison Projects presented the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang's Anatomy Theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT).

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

Tristan, English National Opera

My first Tristan, indeed my first Wagner, in the theatre was ENO’s previous staging of the work, twenty years ago, in 1996. The experience, as it should, as it must, although this is alas far from a given, quite overwhelmed me.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert

Headed by General Director Luana DeVol, a world-renowned dramatic soprano, Opera Las Vegas is a relatively new company that presents opera with first-rate casts at the University of Las Vegas’s Judy Bayley Theater. In 2014 they presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and in 2015, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year they offered a blazing rendition of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

La bohème, Opera Holland Park

Ever since a friend was reported as having said he would like something in return for modern-dress Shakespeare (how quaint that term seems now, as if anyone would bat an eyelid!), namely an Elizabethan-dress staging of Look Back in Anger, I have been curious about the possibilities of ‘down-dating’, as I suppose we might call it. Rarely, if ever, do we see it, though.

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Roger Honeywell (Segismundo) & John Cheek (King Basilio) [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
26 Jul 2010

Santa Fe’s Mixed Dreams

Fairy Tales are often short on character, motivation and development. The stock figures are either good or bad, they are usually archetypal, and stand not only for themselves but larger dimensions of humanity.

Lewis Spratlan: Life is a Dream

King Basilio: John Cheek; Segismundo: Roger Honeywell; Clotaldo: James Maddalena; Rosaura: Ellie Dehn. Conductor: Leonard Slatkin. Director: Kevin Newbury. Scenic Designer: David Korins. Costume Designer: Jessica Jahn. Lighting Designer: Japhy Weideman.

Above: Roger Honeywell as Segismundo and John Cheek as King Basilio

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

 

They tend, thus, to be simplistic and easily understood by children. They also tend to be tricky sources for writing effective opera.

When used as the text for an opera, which sometimes can be effectively done, as in Engelbert Humperdinck’s wonderful Hansel and Gretel, it is the musical score that makes the work successful. All the blank spaces are filled in and emotion is established by the music. If this does not happen — trouble.

Trouble is what Santa Fe Opera had plenty of in mounting the never-before-staged 1978 opera, Life is a Dream, by (now retired) Amherst professor of music, composer Lewis Spratlan. The composer was on hand in Santa Fe for the opera’s rehearsal period and generously conducted symposia and gave interviews, and he let it be known that we were all in for a treat with Life is a Dream.

In a way, we were. Visually! The set is a most ingenious array of lighted barrier gates — think of the ‘arms’ that descend over a road at railroad crossings. A score of such members, fitted out with incandescent light tubes, would swing down or up from stage right and left, on visible ‘gears,’ comic strip version, providing all sorts of moods and meanings. We were in a forest so they were tree limbs; our characters were in danger so they could hide behind the barriers and be safe, we needed a ceiling, so all the light-arms ascended to the top of the stage and formed a pleasing ‘ceiling’ and source of light for the action below. If we needed a mood change, the tubes of warm light could grow cooler, or less or more intense. It was tremendously impressive and innovative, and my hat is off to scenic designer David Korins and lighting designer Japhy Weidman, as well as over-all stage director Kevin Newbury, who enjoyed nothing less than a triumph with their concept of mis-en-scène.

The evening also benefitted from Jessica Jahn’s elegant formal costumes of, I suppose, the era of the opera’s dramatic source, Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 16th Century play, La Vida es Sueño (libretto adaptation by James Maraniss). A major stage element was a curiously Dada-esque (think Marcel Duchamps) ‘tower’ that rose from the stage floor, all round and mechanical and metallic with strong doors that contained the wild and dangerous son of King Basilio who had to be exiled to a forest, kept from society, and from endangering the King. The tall tower, on occasion, would move lower into the stage floor and become a throne, with amusing rather faux-Land of Oz lighting, and sometimes it would disappear entirely to make room for the King’s court. It was all great visual fun. Bravo!

_MG_8130.pngJohn Cheek as King Basilio and Chorus

Meanwhile, back at the forest, the wild and crazy boy, Segismundo, is now a grown up Prince, though he does not know it. But the King, old and near death, is having second thoughts, and risks bringing the boy in from the cold to test him out as a functioning Heir (though the ambitious Duke Astolfo aspires to the throne). Alas, young Seggie does not pass the test, for he throws an unsatisfactory servant off a balcony in to the sea, and engages in further unpleasantness. Back he goes to the tower in the forest — where a few more things happen, and whether dreaming or not dreaming, the Prince vows to behave himself and be a good monarch, while all rejoice. Yep, a happy ending. Interestingly enough, vocal music is abandoned for the final climactic lines of the play/opera and the words are clearly spoken by our reformed hero, a quite clever device for they could be heard and understood.

Now we come full circle: Spratlan’s opera did not convince me for several reasons, quite aside from the simplistic tale whence it springs. First among the problems is a cerebral, if sometimes witty, score that bears no lyric material whatsoever. Virtually all vocal writing is spiky, cruelly high and low and vehement and loud, and for Prince Segismundo, especially, it requires huge reserves of power and range that no tenor since Lauritz Melchior could possess. None of the singers, even in the few potentially romantic moments between the tenor Prince and his soprano would-be girlfriends, held any emotional warmth.

_MG_9146.pngRoger Honeywell as Segismundo and Carin Gilfry as Estrella

Most people, this one included, go to the opera to be entertained and moved, touched by emotion, which may be resolved or left unresolved, but there needs to be a lyric line and reach of voice that conjures up human feelings, in a compound of words and music, that make for lyric drama. Even the astringency of a masterwork such as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, for all its sharp-edged atonality offers a strong core of emotion (and tonality). Mr. Spratlin’s sometimes-tonal score is marvelous in its use of wood winds, its musical tropes and schemes that sometimes even comment upon and illustrate words or situations on the stage; but it offers precious little ‘singing’ music, with a dry result that fails in the end to capture our sympathy. Now and again one can be reminded of the music for Façade of William Walton, or patches of Britten or Barber operas. If only Dream gave us a few touches of emotion as does Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915, we would have something to take home. But Mr. Spratlan has chosen to remain in the classroom instead.

_MG_8612.pngRoger Honeywell as Segismundo and Ellie Dehn as Rosaura

Let’s end on a positive note: In addition to providing a memorable production for the world premiere run of Life is a Dream, Santa Fe Opera assembled a remarkable and I might say brave cast that achieved miracles. The complex music must be very difficult to learn (if the King had his eye on conductor Leonard Slatkin at all times, who can blame him?), and it is surely hard to sing. The cast, all of them, turned in remarkably accomplished performances.

Tenor Roger Honeywell exceeded himself in the high-and-loud role of the toubled Prince, and I hope his voice benefits from a lot of rest between shows, for he is sorely taxed by the exploitative, even anti-vocal writing. James Maddalena and Craig Verm, baritones, were effective as the Prince’s mentor and rival, respectively, Verm displaying an unusually attractive vocal gift. Keith Jameson as the court’s jester Clarin had to sing, juggle, play tricks and be ever-present all evening, and he excelled, as did the beautiful soprano of Ellie Dehn. Her music, of all, allowed a few moments of dulcet tone, which she had in abundance. Bass John Cheek sounded old, noble and wobbly, which was appropriate as the weakening King, while Carin Gilfrey, Darik Knutsen, Thomas Forde and Heath Hubert were up to the demands of their supporting roles.

Musical director Leonard Slatkin, a sometimes controversial figure in operatic conducting, proved exactly right for the Spratlan score, handling it with seeming ease and expert efficiency.

James A. Van Sant © 2010

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):