• Lewis Spratlan
  • Life is a Dream (1978)

  • Margun Music (World)
  • 1(afl,pic)1(ca)1(bcl)1/21(pictpt)10/2perc/hp.pf/str
  • SATB Chorus
  • Soprano, Mezzo soprano, 2 Tenors, 2 Baritones, Bass Baritone, Bass
  • 2 hr
  • James Maraniss
  • English

Programme Note

2000 Pulitzer Prize in Music (Act II, Concert Version)
2016 Charles Ives Opera Prize

Libretto in English by James Maraniss after the play La vida es sueño by Pedro Calderón

Premiere: (complete opera)
July 24 2010
Santa Fe Opera
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Santa Fe, NM

Synopsis:
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.  

— Lewis Spratlan

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